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Justin Kerr dishes his secrets to good design

Justin Kerr is a Providence-based designer, RISD grad & Founders League member.

He gave us his take on life as a freelancer, the keys to a great website & how to bring a company's identity to life.

Before we dig into your design process, let's start from the beginning: Why did you become a designer?

I’ve always loved art and design. As a kid I used to spend hours drawing cartoon characters from the Sunday comics. When I was in grade school I wanted to be an architect but the advanced math and science requirements persuaded me to consider graphic design instead.

I'm glad I did. I love the process of developing visual solutions that inform and inspire.

Plus, I’ve now infected my kids with my design-geekness. They can instantly spot a poorly-kerned word or a badly-Photoshopped image.

Want to learn more about Justin's journey as a designer?

Check out this blog post.

After working as Creative Director at Newfangled for 15 years, you decided to go full-time as a freelancer. Why’d you make the jump?

I had been considering working for myself for several years before I finally transitioned out of Newfangled. An opportunity presented itself last year to go out on my own and I took advantage of it. I decided that I didn’t want to look back twenty years from now and say, “I should have done that.”

While at Newfangled, Justin gave their identity a fresh update. Check out his work here.

Going solo means you have to reel in your own fish. How do you acquire your clients?

Mostly by word of mouth. The most effective way for me to stay relevant is networking and collaborating with designers and other creative people. Regularly attending networking events and working a couple of days a week at a shared space like Founders League makes sure I get out of my home office once in a while to meet new people (and prospective clients). LinkedIn has also been a helpful networking and marketing tool.

Want to connect with Justin? Shoot him a request on linkedin.

Now let's dig into your process. How do you help companies find their identity?

My process is not that different from most other designers (discovery, concept & design, iteration, production & implementation) but the key to the process is communication. Take the time to understand your client’s business and their needs and develop a short list of design goals and objectives that become the touchstone for the project and keep it from going off the rails (in budget and scope).

Many designers short-circuit the communication process for two reasons: it’s not the most glamorous part of the process, and they’re more interested in impressing the client by designing something “cool.”

Justin helped an established nonprofit find their groove again.

Get an inside look at his process here.

You’ve done a lot of web design over the years. What are the keys to a well-designed website?

Most websites are, in reality, digital marketing platforms for products and services. If you think about them that way, there’s more to designing a website than just making it aesthetically pleasing. You have to begin with a clear strategy for your website’s content. Who is your audience? What do you want to say to them? What do you want them to do in response to your message?
After you’ve defined your strategy, you need to build a structure that will guide visitors through your site in a purposeful way. Of course, visual design plays an important role in your website’s strategy, but it should subtly enhance the user’s experience through readable type, a color palette that helps define the site architecture and content, and imagery that informs and inspires. Many web designers misuse visual design by distracting their viewers with superfluous decoration or the latest gimmick.

Justin gave Merge Records a fresh web presence for the cross-platform age.

Learn how he did it here.

Your designs have widely varying styles. How do you decide which style to use for each client?

I use a multi-phase design process that includes three distinct deliverables: a visual inventory, an element collage, and page mockups.

The visual inventory is a survey of websites and website elements collected into a single document (usually a Keynote presentation) to generate conversation about design: colors, typography, conceptual direction, etc.

In the second phase I deliver the element collage, a collection of content elements (taken from an interactive wireframe I create for the new site) with a visual style applied in order to develop a visual language. The element collage is a close cousin to style tiles and mood boards.

Once the visual language has been established, I create mockups of selected page templates to show how the visual language will be applied.

Want to see how Justin took CMSC's web presence from outdated to fresh?
Check out this case study.

Despite the dominance of digital media, you’re still getting hired for print design. Is print here to stay?

Absolutely. Think about all the non-digital design you interact with everyday: billboards and road signs, packaging in the grocery store, the magazines and books you read, menus and signage in restaurants, the money in your wallet, and so on. Print has not gone away with the rise of digital content. It’s the format of archived information. Long after the 40-character bit of wisdom you tweeted this morning is forgotten, a loved one will cherish the postcard you sent from Yosemite or the note you wrote to them on their birthday.

Justin used a classy style to wow parents of prospective JWU students.

Check out his work here.

You’ve also done quite a bit of logo design. What’s the biggest mistake people make with their logos?

Not considering all the different uses (sizes, applications, context) and failing to create an identity system to address them. Designing a logo for a single use (i.e. a website) is one of the unfortunate reasons why you can buy a logo for $5. Check out this article for my thoughts on other drawbacks of cheap logo design.

Good logo design doesn't happen overnight.

Get Justin's take on why you should avoid cheap design here.

Providence is full of young designers following your footsteps. What advice would you give them?

Get the best art education you can afford and sample as many different creative disciplines as possible. Take cooking classes, learn to play an instrument, learn how to blow glass or build furniture. Creative inspiration comes from many different sources.

Also: take advantage of any design business courses you can find. They’ll pay dividends down the road.

Want to learn more about Justin’s process & design thinking?

Check out his website here.

Brought to you by Founders League, a coworking community for entrepreneurs, freelancers & remote workers in and around Providence.

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