Improve Communications with Five Less-Is-More Tips

Communication is the Lifeblood of Nearly Everything We Do

Whether your goal is to drive sales, educate or inspire, effective communication is at the heart of practically everything you do. If you must work with or through others to get something accomplished, you need effective communication. Speaking well is certainly important, but I want to share with you a few tips that can help you improve your effectiveness in written or visual communication. If you sometimes struggle to write letters, memos or other documents — even ad copy or web content — I think you will find these tips to be helpful.

1. Consider Your Audience … and Limit Your Message Accordingly

The words you may use to connect with 5th graders would be very different from those you might use to address peers in business. We would also communicate differently with entry level employees and the board of directors. A good first step toward improving your communications is to identify your audience. Once you understand clearly the audience you are trying to reach, you can omit communication that is not appropriate.

2. Use Fewer Words

Google provides the definition of brevity as follows:

brevity definition

We may have developed a bad habit of inflating our word count to meet a quota in high school. But brevity is critical for clear communication in business. Use fewer words that convey the same meaning whenever possible.

3. Use Clear Space to Bring Attention to Your Message

Before an orchestra begins, the conductor calls the musicians (and the audience) to silence. Think of words as sound and white space as visual silence. With sufficient silence, you create room for sound — your message. Margins are a simple way to add silence to your content. Another place we find clear space is within images: copy space. Many of the best magazine ads and billboards use images with copy space. Use the silence of clear space to provide a place for the message you intend to convey.

4. Use Clip Art Sparingly If at All

Clip art is rarely necessary. Not all clip art is bad, but some of it is downright awful. If you intend for your message to be light, informal and comedic, clip art may be justified. The problem is that a lot of people seem to use clip art habitually rather than intentionally. Think of the brevity principle. If your message stands alone without clip art, leave it out.

5. Know When to Call a Communications Professional

You  may not be an art director or a marketing manager, but small businesses occasionally need the services of a copy writer or a layout artist. Think about the cost associated with a mistake. How many people would be affected? If business is on the line for a print ad, a billboard, or a press release, consider enlisting the services of a trusted professional.


We hope these tips make your communications more effective. If you have specific questions or if your current needs are beyond what you can handle, contact us today online or by phone at (864) 554-5061.

When Is the Last Time You Were Inspired by Marketing in the Financial Sector?

Have you seen the #TDThanksYou video? Take a look:

Okay, okay…we know that #TDThanksYou is not a charity campaign; it’s a marketing campaign from a for-profit entity. And I’m sure there more than a few people who are a bit creeped out that a bank (or perhaps a bank’s employees in collusion with family members) essentially surveilled a few customers to get the details required to be so personalized with their gifts. And we know that everyone can’t expect to receive the same type of lavish experience at TD Bank.

All of that cerebral, skeptical stuff aside, is this not one of the best marketing tactics ever?! It’s like the best parts of Undercover Boss and Extreme Makeover Home Edition applied to the context of a bank’s relationship to a few of its customers. And here we are, discussing it of our own accord at no cost to TD Bank. It’s so genius, it’s almost evil. Almost. But most people including this humble blog author can’t help but have some degree of positive feelings about TD Bank after watching this video.

This kind of marketing inspires and challenges those of us who make our trade in persuasive communication. Yes, we can tell the story of our clients’ businesses or products and tout their best points. But it takes a special kind of effort and creativity to inspire people in the process of advertising or marketing. The generous nature of the thank-you gifts overwhelms the recipient in the video and many viewers as well. The personalization of the gifts to the situations, challenges, and desires of the recipients is so spot-on, it’s uncanny.

How are YOU (and how am I) being inspirational, generous and personal with YOUR marketing efforts?

Your turn…

What do you think about this video from TD Bank? Do you feel the love, or do you remain unconvinced?

Adobe Creative Cloud Mobile Splash Screen

Adobe Creative Cloud 2014 Splash Screens

NOTE: On October 6, 2014, Adobe updated the splash screens again. I personally will miss the lion on the Illustrator splash screen, but I think many users will find the updates to be a welcome change.


For better or for worse, Adobe just released a major update to the Creative Cloud suite of applications. The jury is still out on whether the update is an improvement or a nuisance, but for the time being, we have some new splash screens to enjoy upon launching the updated apps.

Love ’em? Hate ’em? Comment below!

Photoshop CC 2014 Splash Screen

Photoshop CC 2014 Splash Screen

 Illustrator CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe Illustrator CC 2014 Splash Screen

InDesign CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe InDesign CC 2014 Splash Screen

 Premiere Pro CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2014

After Effects CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe After Effects CC 2014 Splash Screen

Dreamweaver CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe Dreamweaver CC 2014 Splash Screen

Muse CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe Muse CC 2014 Splash Screen

Flash CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe Flash CC 2014 Splash Screen

Audition CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe Audition CC 2014 Splash Screen

InCopy CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe InCopy CC 2014 Splash Screen

Prelude CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe Prelude CC 2014 Splash Screen

SpeedGrade CC 2014 Splash Screen

Adobe SpeedGrade CC 2014

Bad Design Done Better: Use Fonts Correctly

A New Sign for a New Neighborhood

There is a newly developed neighborhood not too far from my home. (Note that we don’t have gated communities in Abbeville, SC; this is just a regular ol’ neighborhood — with no gate.) I was somewhat excited when I saw construction begin on the stately entrance and the sign. “This is going to be nice,” I thought. I was in for a rude awakening when the name was applied to the sign:


I was underwhelmed, to put it mildly. The crown and the flourish typesorts were very good. The colors are fantastic and conceptually appropriate. But the typeface choice of ALL CAPS blackletter? I was dismayed.

About Blackletter Type

Blackletter typefaces were built to mimic hand-drawn manuscript lettering from the era when Gutenberg developed the printing press. Blackletter fonts are widely available on many computer systems and have been for years. A common blackletter font option for Windows users is Old English.

You may not be able to put your finger on why this typeface is not the best choice. In fact, the type family itself isn’t bad. But blackletter fonts are incredibly hard to read when presented in all caps. It’s just not done, and this CAMELOT sign presents one supporting example of that fact. Another detail that will grate typography purists is that the characters were stretched vertically.

Better Ways to “Dress” Camelot

First of all, it is completely understandable that the developer wanted to evoke the nobility and romance of Camelot. The name choice is admirable, even if it is just a neighborhood and not a proper gated community. But in my opinion, the sign artist could have done a couple of things differently to yield a much better result.

1. Use All Caps Without Distorting the Characters

It seems the sign maker and the type designer may not have been on the same page. The aspect ratio of the sign was set. And the name layout appears to have been done independently of the aspect ratio. Also, the person ordering or designing the sign must have been afraid of clear space. Simply adding “CAMELOT” in all caps would result in a name that was wide and left a lot of empty space above and below. I’m still not sure that’s a bad thing, but the designer or signmaker solved this “problem” by  stretching the characters so the word had a taller aspect ratio that better filled the space.

Type developers, whether from decades ago or in more recent times, devote hundreds of hours to crafting typefaces with the right proportions, shapes, kerning, tracking, weight, etc. If you think it is easy to design a typeface, you are mistaken. There are graphic designers and artists, and then there are type developers. I’m convinced type developers are a different breed altogether.

Rather than thinking, “I know better. Let me just stretch this to fit my space,” a wiser decision would be to simply use the characters as presented in the font without distorting them. If the decision maker was adamant about a blackface font in all caps, the best way to display that would have been to place the characters centered in the space without distorting them:


2. Use Title Case for Blackletter Type

Jacob Cass of JUST™ Creative produced a brilliant type classification ebook which he generously offers for free on his site. On page 17, Cass explains a nuance of handling Blackletter type:

Text type faces should fit snugly together with less space between the words than is customary with normal Roman types and, because of their complex structure, [blackletter type] should never be set in all-capital form.

*emphasis mine

If the CAMELOT sign designer had come across this ebook and had better instruction on handling blackletter type, he might have made a sign that looked something like this:

CAMELOT-03-cloister-black-mixed3. Consider Small Caps

If the goal was a majestic look that evoked the era of Camelot, then Trajan might have been a nice choice. This distinguished font is often used on movie posters (over-used if you ask some folks). But in this context, I think Trajan might be appropriate. What do you think?


They might even have considered another serif font like Garamond. This example is set in small caps, and the tracking is expanded to 120:



The CAMELOT sign is a lovely concept with beautiful colors, and I hope the housing development does well. But I can bet you that if there are any graphic designers or type developers who make their home there and have to drive by that sign every day, they will probably cringe a little until they stop noticing it.

Is PicMonkey a Tool or a Toy?

A friend of mine aspires to launch a photography business. She has been learning composition and lighting from an established photographer. She has already done some portraits, and she had been booked for a wedding. We were “talking shop” about cameras, lenses, and editing. She mentioned she uses PicMonkey for editing. I wasn’t familiar with PicMonkey initially, but my first instinct was that a pro-oriented tool like Photoshop would be a better choice for a professional result. That is just my default recommendation based on the axiom that you usually get what you pay for. However, I knew I was ignorant of PicMonkey.

I’m not a fan of ignorance, and I don’t want to rest on my own assumptions, especially if my assumptions would lead me to pay for Photoshop if it were not uniquely necessary and powerful. I started Googling to find out more. The initial results I found were quite warm toward PicMonkey, but they seemed a little suspicious to me. I came across articles with titles like these:

PicMonkey: Photoshop for Broke People

Making Professional Looking Pictures Using PicMonkey

Don’t Want to Learn Photoshop? Use PicMonkey Instead!

Those aren’t the actual article titles I found, but you get the idea. The sentiment from those articles was that photographers and designers who want to save a buck can use PicMonkey and avoid purchasing Photoshop. I didn’t dig too far, but I didn’t find anything overly critical of PicMonkey. My “too good to be true” alarm started going off. I wanted to explore both sides of the issue, so I posted questions on social media to get some feedback from friends. Much to my surprise, the official Twitter account for PicMonkey (@PicMonkeyApp) actually replied. Here is the conversation, unedited, for your edification:

Here is PicMonkey’s response:

Well, that wasn’t too much help since I hadn’t yet used PicMonkey. Since I had the ear of PicMonkey on Twitter, I started checking out PicMonkey and found a few other questions worth asking:

I haven’t received answers yet from PicMonkey, and it has only been about an hour. But based on my initial findings, here is my conclusion:

Let me make something clear by rehashing a point from an earlier tweet: I am not trashing PicMonkey. For certain things, it is fantastic! If you need a lightweight, cloud-accessible solution for editing images for a blog or social media, PicMonkey is wonderful. For crying out loud, you can’t even install Photoshop on a Chromebook! If you are preparing images for standard definition or even full HD (1920×1080) displays, PicMonkey will work well. If you just want to make fun edits to images to print out at home and slap on your refrigerator, go ahead and use PicMonkey.

But if you are a professional photographer or designer and your work will be printed larger than 9 inches at the largest dimension, you shouldn’t even consider PicMonkey. For professional results, use professional tools.

Did Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Makes a Personal Attack on the Marketing Profession?

Jessica Stillman from Inc. wrote a provocative piece containing Jeff Bezos quotes. The title is, “7 Jeff Bezos Quotes That Outline the Secret to Success,” and you don’t have to scroll far to find something that moves counter to generally accepted wisdom.

This statement leaps from the page:

“The balance of power is shifting toward consumers and away from companies … The right way to respond to this if you are a company is to put the vast majority of your energy, attention, and dollars into building a great product or service and put a smaller amount into shouting about it, marketing it. In the old world, you devoted 30% of your time to building a great service and 70% of your time to shouting about it. In the new world, that inverts.”

Once I realized Jeff Bezos was advising people to spend less on marketing, I cringed a bit. My defenses shot up. At AJ Design and Marketing, LLC, I hang my hat on providing marketing resources and design services. How can this well-respected business giant say something like this that would hack away at the value proposition of little guys like us? And yet, when I pondered his words a little more deeply, I realized that Bezos is saying the same thing I’ve advised clients and prospects before: work on your business before you work on your marketing.

I was recently contacted by the owner of a small and growing boutique with about 1,500 likes on Facebook. The owner knew I had helped develop the site for 105 West Boutique, and she was interested in a website for her similarly positioned business in a different market area. Yes, 105 West Boutique had only about 40,000 likes on Facebook the day their website went live. Yes, they currently have more than 65,000. But I can almost guarantee that the owners of 105 West wouldn’t have invested $4,000 – $6,000 in web development when they had 1,500 likes on Facebook and and $20,000 in annual revenue. Where some designers or site developers may have tried to pitch a website as a way to solidify the business, this owner of the up-and-coming boutique needed different advice: solidify the brand and build a stronger cash position. Then when the business supports the capital investment, build an online sales channel that is appropriate for your current and anticipated volume, with room to grow a bit.

What Jeff Bezos advised, though it seems hip and almost contrarian at first, is what smart businesses have done for eons: Build your business on your core competency, that thing (or those things) you do better/faster/less expensive than anyone else around you. Don’t invent a new way to snooker people into becoming customers; invent a new way to make people’s lives better or easier. Get really good at serving people, and in today’s “new world,” serving people will lead to the growth you desperately want.

It turns out that Jeff Bezos isn’t such a bad guy after all. Yes, I went a little provocateur with my title (ok…a LOT). But I never really believed Bezos has a personal vendetta with those in the marketing profession. However, if marketers position themselves as those who facilitate spammy overselling tactics, then yeah, maybe “spend less on marketing” applies. But not to me. Ever since I started parlaying the hybrid business and design toolkit into my life’s work, I have felt that it is my responsibility to help build stronger clients. And that sometimes means advising a client away from an option or a project that would benefit me and toward a solution that benefits them.

Telling the truth, even when it hurts. That’s business-friendly graphic design.

Moving Completely Over to the “Light Side”

apple-iieBack in the mid-1980s, my Dad bought an Apple IIe to help him manage his growing medical practice. That was the first computer I had access to. Eventually, he upgraded to an Apple IIgs — with a color monitor even! Knowing what Apple has become since the Mac and the iPhone, these tidbits of my early computer exposure now seem really cool.

But it was the 1980s. My Dad didn’t know then what Apple would later become. We surely didn’t know anything about being cool. Alas, he eventually made the decision to get a PC. I’m not sure of the exact specs, but I think the most capable PC processors in those days were the 386, eventually superseded by the 486 and the 486DX. Apple was a faint memory as we started learning MS-DOS and Windows 3.1.

Returning to My Roots

Fast forward to 2011. I had been designing for a few years with CorelDRAW 11 on a PC. My body of work included personal projects and volunteer work for my church. My portfolio landed me an interview and a temporary design job within the marketing department at Self Regional Healthcare. What was on my desk when I arrived for work? A Mac Pro with a 22″ Cinema Display. I realized after my first week that I had begun to come full circle when I tried to close a window on a Windows PC by moving my mouse cursor toward the upper left corner of the screen.


That process of moving full circle was occurring in August of 2012 as I ordered a MacBook Pro for my business. Later that same year, my son traded a small fortune for a brand new iPod Touch (5th Generation). My wife then decided she would try out the iPhone after seeing her sister enjoy hers. The following Christmas, my other son received an iPad Mini. Without realizing it and without really straining for it, we had become an “Apple family” in just a couple of years.

The latest come-home-to-Apple moment was when I decided to jump on a mid-cycle upgrade opportunity and buy an iPhone 5s to replace my aging Motorola Droid RAZR MAXX.

So far, the hardware and software has been brilliant. I did have a SIM card programming issue that Verizon fixed quickly, but everything else has been great as expected. Many of the apps I used regularly on my Droid (Zoho Invoice, Evernote, Wunderlist, Pulse, etc.) are cross-platform. It was really just a matter of installing what I needed and logging in.

Conventional Graphic Design Wisdom?

All professional designers use Apple products, right? At least the good ones do. That is what I thought subconsciously. It just seemed that everybody who was producing really good work was using a MacBook or an iPad. And I guess, from all appearances, I’m perpetuating that generalization. But the truth is that while I was enjoying my new MacBook Pro, it was the PC that had put me in position to afford that MacBook.

When you observe the AJ Design mobile workspace, I have the shiny MacBook Pro. And yes, now I have an iPhone as well. But we would do well to remember that these tools are a means to an end. An Apple product never created anything. What a designer creates is far more important than the tool that he uses.

Password Security Is NOT Optional

If you own a website, there is a good chance someone is trying to hack it right now. Forget a website … if you simply own a computer that is connected to the Internet, you are probably being targeted. Is this some kind of conspiracy-theory-driven fear tactic designed to sell security software? No. Sadly, this is pure anecdotal evidence from the last 30 minutes or so.

One of my websites is powered by WordPress. To beef up security, I use a plugin called Wordfence. I got an email alert from Wordfence that my actual administrative username had been locked after 20 failed login attempts. Of course, I hadn’t tried to log in at all today, so I knew it was a potential attack. Sure enough, I was locked out of the site. But the site was secure. The hacker tried to get in but was met with a strong password (thank you, LastPass).

Wordfence has an intriguing feature called Live Traffic that allows you to see the IP addresses of any users or search bots that have recently accessed the site. I was curious to see the attempted login activity and was shocked to see that there were multiple login attempts from nonexistent admin-sounding usernames. I checked another site I manage and found a similar thing there.

I’m not scared, and neither should you be. But one reason I’m not scared is that my passwords look sorta like this:


And yours should too.

Learn the security options available to you for your website and/or your computer. Stay smart and prevent hackers from even attempting to access anything. But if all that fails and a hacker is knocking on the door, make sure you have a strong password. Use a service like LastPass.

If you use good security practices, you don’t have to worry about global, distributed brute-force attacks like this.

Infographic: A Visual History of Google Algorithm Changes

Snow Storm Pax has pummeled the Southeast United States for three days. It is now moving on to the Northeast, but we in the South are still reeling. Most 2-wheel-drive vehicles are safest in their driveways. Most businesses, schools and government offices are shut down. But for any self-employed folks with a to-do list calling, today is a day of catching up. OK, maybe it’s a day to catch up after spending the morning enjoying fun times in the snow with family or friends.

Before settling in for a couple of hours of moving forward on projects, I wanted to share this excellent infographic from Hubspot and Moz on the evolution of Google’s algorithm. If you own or manage a website, you will be interested to take this in. Click here to see infographic this full size.

A Visual History of Google's Algorithm Changes