3 Design Techniques to Nail Down your Graphic Design Style

3 design techniques to nail down your graphic design style

Today, I am going to expand on the subject of defining your style by teaching you some design techniques I use in my creative process. Using certain combinations of design techniques can give your work a unique look, and defines your own style. 

These techniques help me maintain design consistency, creates an authentic style to my artwork, and makes it recognizable. There was a time when I did not have consistency, and I struggled to even come up with design ideas. My design style was all over the place. I would look at other designers work and envy their creativity. Then, I decided to stop looking at other designers; came up with a way to be inspired by my life with family and the world around me; and defined my creative process for adding the look that makes my work, well, me. Once I did this and the action steps in my last blog post, I had that “aaah ha” moment, and was able to actually identify what makes my work different than everyone else and unique to me.

If you don’t establish your individuality as a designer, you will continue to struggle to separate your work from other creatives, and it will be very difficult to get noticed, because your work will just blend into the crowd.

By learning how to use these specific techniques, you will be able to use this knowledge to further define and create your own unique look to the artwork you make, and truly separate your work from other artists. And, you won’t have to look to other designers for “inspiration.” I strongly advise against looking to other artists for design ideas, because you will be influenced by their work. You do not want to be influenced by anyone; you want to be you. This does not mean you can't look at what other designers are doing in your industry.  It just means, when you are ready to work on a design project, avoid looking at their work prior to, and during, the development phase. Once you know how to create your own individuality, you will see how easy it is to design, and ideas should flow naturally.

Let me tell you the secret. Developing your style is as simple as making soup. Yes, I mean real soup. You may be thinking, but I am not a good cook - or I’m hungry. Well, you don’t have to be a good cook, just good at combining the right ingredients. 

I like to compare many things to cooking soup. I actually compared my teenage son’s growth and development to a bowl of soup the other day (while we were eating soup), and he couldn’t believe I was comparing him to soup. But really, almost anything can be compared to soup.  A really good soup recipe is a concoction of base ingredients, but what sets one recipe apart from another is the seasonings and spices. Overall, the seasonings you use in a recipe only account for a very small 1-2% of the finished product, but that small percentage is what separates a flavorful, insanely delicious bowl of soup from a plain jane mediocre bowl. But, most importantly, it is the unique combination of spices that give your recipe its flavor and distinction. Applying this soup mentality to illustrating great design = it is the precise combination of design techniques that gives your illustrations their unique style and distinction.

Let me just say that again because I think it is such an important concept.

“It is the precise combination of design techniques that gives your illustrations their unique style and distinction.”

So, here are some design techniques you can use to mix and match to make your design work uniquely, and deliciously, your own.

Technique 1 | Using Color for Unity

Color has a huge role in design, and studies have shown color can evoke feelings and influence buying decisions. Check out this infographic on the influence of color. It is important to consider how color affects the end consumer, what the design will be used for, and the company’s aesthetic or niche market. This is why, when designing your portfolio, you want to have an idea of who you will be designing for so the work that you put out into the market reflects the style of the brands you want to attract.

You can establish design consistency in your portfolio with the colors you use, and variations of those colors. Consider the feelings you want your work to convey with the colors you choose. Create your own color hierarchy from primary, to secondary, and a neutral color palette. 

Color Palette

The color palette you choose will be the main colors you use for your brand, and your artwork. Notice I have many colors that I use in my work, and this is not an exhaustive graphic of my color palette. These are just the main colors I like to use. There are 40 colors shown here (some are duplicated in neutrals from my primary just for organization sake). Your color palette should be a reflection of your style. You can, and should, deviate from these colors, too. I know this sounds contradictory to what I just said, but let me explain. When adding variation to your work, you will do this with the tint (lightness) and shade (darkness) of the color. But, you can also include colors that are not part of your main color palette, as long as those colors make up just a small part of the overall design. For example, you will notice that there is no value of purple in my palette. This does not mean I do not have purple tones in my color arsenal (I actually have 4 at the moment), or that I do not use that color from time to time. It means it is not my favorite. Really what you are doing when selecting the color palette to unify your work is selecting your favorite colors. These are colors that just speak to you, and when you select the colors that represent you, you are defining your style as an artist.

Your action step: Define your color palette. Find the colors that speak to you. Ways you can do this are:

  1. Explore colors on Pinterest and create a board for your color inspiration.
  2. Go to the art supply store, get a cart, and start filling it with paint colors, objects, or faux flowers in colors you absolutely love. Important note: You don’t have to buy the whole cart, just snap a picture with your phone (saves lots of $). Then, politely return the items where you got them, or buy just the ones you want to keep for inspiration.
  3. Explore color palettes online from Colrd - this site is really cool since you can explore by color, image, palettes, and more. 

Technique 2 | Using Shapes

Shapes are the basic form that make up your finished artwork. 

They are like an atom - the smallest basic form of matter, the defining structure, and building blocks for chemical elements. 

These are lines, ovals, triangles, circles, hexagons, rectangles and the like. These shapes will be the start of any design. It is your job, as an illustrator, to manipulate these shapes to your subject matter to create a design. What you are illustrating will dictate what shapes you need. For instance, if you are drawing buildings, or a skyline, you would have structure, and rectangles. Or if you are drawing something organic, like florals, or a river, you will have curvature or movement to your shapes.

If you have a particular subject you plan to illustrate regularly, it is so important to get to know other ways to draw those objects. Look at hand lettering artists, they learn to draw different styles of letters (a certain subject), in varying ways. This same process of variation also applies to illustrating a pattern design, icon, or artwork.

Technique 3 | Add interest with shading and texture

This is where you can really flex your creative muscle and do some really fun things to make your work stand out. These are the spices of design, the little details which, used in a certain way, makes your work have it’s look. One of my favorite ways to get ideas for shading artwork is referencing pen and ink shading techniques. Pen and ink techniques are used quite frequently in book illustrations, and these techniques are a staple for fine detailed drawings. Since I want my work to tell a story, pen and ink is my go to tool for coming up with ways to add details to my design work. Now, this does not mean all of my work has to have pen and ink hatching, cross-hatching, or stippling, but just referencing these shading techniques always sparks ideas when I am sketching. Adding in little details like lines, or leaf curls in just the right place, adds a great deal of interest to your work.

Texture is also a great way to illustrate a particular feeling you want to convey with your work. For example, if you are drawing cactuses, they would not look like cactus without lines that show their prickly nature. Texture, like shading, can be used to break up a design giving depth to the piece.

To help you with adding shading to your work, I created a Pen & Ink Reference Guide that gives examples of shading you can use for reference. You can download it below.


What techniques do you use to make your work stand out? What subjects do you tend to illustrate the most? Let me know in the comments.