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I am have been spending a good amount of my time to learn how to do design. My friend is a designer and helps out when he can he often comes around and shows me tricks that make things like text and images look "better".

For example:

enter image description here

enter image description here

As we all can agree the second one is clearly sharper and better looking. That being said what subtle techniques do you use to make your art work that much better. I have learnt enough to place the images and components in my design but lacking that subtle touch. Like the simple shadow in my example above.

What subtle techniques do you use? I would love to see the before and after as well!

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Rather than asking for a source book of design tips, please post when you have a more specific question. This could go on for days with no discernable "answer" in sight. –  plainclothes Dec 13 '12 at 6:18
This question is less about design and more about decoration. (Which is maybe fine, but do note the differences) –  DA01 Dec 13 '12 at 7:32
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closed as not a real question by plainclothes, DA01, Scott, e100, Ryan Dec 13 '12 at 19:08

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2 Answers

The simple answer is: there can't be a list of things that just make a design better.

Here's why, and a couple of tips on what you can do when you find yourself looking for such a thing.

Everything is case by case. The text indenting style you use in your example, for example, sometimes works well and can help make text more prominent by increasing contrast and creating a slight sense of depth. How much that improves a design depends on how much that element needs more prominence, and it comes at the slight cost of complicating the text element and adding noise to the page. Sometimes, that's a net benefit, sometimes, a net loss.

In your example, it's a net benefit because there are few competing elements and because the extra prominence and contrast counter-acts the downside of the texture underneath. The texture looks nice but has a downside that it competes a little with the text for foreground status, weakening the hierarchy and clarity of the page. The extra dash of prominence from the text shadow makes sure there's no serious competition, restoring a clear figure/ground relationship and hieratchy between text and background.

If an identical effect was used, say, against a flat background on a busy page, it would harm the design.

Anything that, today, seems to always look great anywhere will, tommorrow, be a horrible tired overused cliche. It's a really really common to see some stylistic trick, think "That looks great and fresh!", try it in some design of your own, think "This looks fresh here too!", then start habitually using it in places where it doesn't actually improve the design but doesn't obviously harm it, and raises a smile among friends/clients because it's reminiscent of those other things that look really good, and then - with hundreds of other people doing the same - that stylistic trick quickly becomes a tired cliche.

Any list of the stylistic tricks of 2012 that seem to always look cool, will almost certainly double up as a list of tired design cliches of 2013.

Here's an example of just this - Smashed Magazine, a popular online web design magazine, listing design "epidemics", many of which are things it itself recommended a few years previously as cool new stylistic tricks, which then got out of control and were over-used.

If a design doesn't satisfy, don't look for a stock trick that can be parachuted in.

Ask: why isn't it working? What's it lacking? Then ask: based on the specifics of this case, what can I do to fix that specific problem or need?

The closest thing I'm aware of to a good, universal, non-fashion-dependent reference you can turn to when stumped when looking for something to add a touch of something to a design that doesn't quite cut the mustard is the brilliant book Universal Principles of Design. It's unique in that it is a catalogue of things that work across design disciplines because of some evidence-based fact (standards of evidence vary...) about human perception / psychology or engineering etc, with an ingenious contents page listing them by type of design problem they can solve. But it's not easy to apply: they're very, very, very general principles and seeing how things like this can be applied is a very difficult art in itself.

Aside from that, there are literally hundreds/thousands of books, online magazines, dead tree magazines, blogs, showcase sites etc (links to random examples off the top of my head) that showcase design techniques and which people turn to for ideas.

Use them, don't abuse them. Have a reason for adding a stylistic or decorative trick that is based on your case and isn't just "it looks awesome somewhere else"

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you completely mistook my question. I am not a designer in any sense but I was looking for techniques I could potentially apply. Not that I was going to be simply putting everything into one design. I do appreciate your lecture though. –  myusuf3 Dec 13 '12 at 15:28
Smashing Magazine itself is a design epidemic. –  horatio Dec 13 '12 at 15:32
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With Photoshop many of these 'subtle' effects are really easy. I've made a few of them using the Layer Styles dialog in Photoshop, which is perfect for quickly adding subtle effects to an object. I've labeled each one to correspond to the effect.

enter image description here

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None of these will make a bad design better. –  plainclothes Dec 13 '12 at 8:17
This is a handy resource for a beginner, but it should definitely come with a disclaimer! All of these things give an element prominence at the cost of adding noise and distraction: they should all be used with care, when a dash of extra prominence is needed and when a design can afford to lose a little clean simplicity. –  user568458 Dec 13 '12 at 11:07
As a general rule if you want a modern clean design, I'd keep the opacity/contrast down (< 40%) on any of the above effects. Overly dark drop shadows, strokes, bevels etc are often a telltale sign of a less seasoned designer. A good place to find some examples is here: http://365psd.com/ –  John Dec 13 '12 at 16:20
I agree with all of these comments, except for maybe saying that all of these cause a "distraction" -- but if used improperly, sure, they could be. I was just providing myusuf3 with a quick preview of some things he can play around with and experiment with. I whipped this up in about 60 seconds and should be taken with a grain of salt. –  Johannes Dec 13 '12 at 16:32
John nothing you just said makes any sense. You can't make huge "umbrella" statements like keeping all effects below 40%. You have no idea the application, the context, the background or anything else. –  Ryan Dec 13 '12 at 19:07
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