Books on table

Designing as a Non-Designer

If someone had asked me a couple months ago, “Are you a designer?” I would have said "hell no." The extent of my design experience is a poster I made in Publisher for a high school business class. Or arranging clip art in Word, if you count that.

Regardless, a few weeks into my internship our Chief Operating Officer, Tim, tasked me with designing books for each of the eight VPs, directors, and managers at Metal Toad. They had each named a book as part of a leadership exercise that was meant to embody their goals and leadership philosophies. I would design them each a physical version of their book that would serve as a reminder of these goals as well as a handy notebook. Tim informed me that he would hand out the books at a leadership lunch in June, so I had to design them in secret — but I would get full creative input and autonomy of the project. This simultaneously invigorated me and scared the absolute crap out of me. How was I — a non-designer — supposed to come up with designs for books and not disappoint Tim and everyone else who would be receiving one?

But I had to get over that pretty quickly. Our resident (and amazing) designer Rachel Gibbons was on vacation in Hawaii, and books don’t design themselves.

So to start, I downloaded the software for Blurb, a website you can use to self-publish books, magazines, and e-books. When I opened it and clicked around, I felt a little more confident I could figure it out, and after a while I realized it’s actually pretty easy. You can add text boxes and photos similar to any Office software, and easily copy and move things around. Instead of making custom designs for the covers (which I knew would come out looking like something made in MS Paint by a 3-year-old), I found some high quality images from Google and wrapped them front-to-back in the software for each cover. Then I created templates for the inside of each book (which would use our Metal Toad brand font, Whitney, and our gray and orange theme) that had a title page, a spot for a headshot and a biography, and notes pages for the rest — designing each book then felt like a breeze.

My eye for detail from my newspaper days (and apparently for design!) definitely came in handy for this project. I meticulously readjusted each page and found the right photos until it suited my and Tim’s liking. I made sure the covers accurately reflected the title and meaning of each book and that every word lined up correctly on all 160 combined pages. I spent many hours on this project over the course of a couple weeks, and it was worth every minute. The books came out great in my humble, non-designer opinion, and the directors really appreciated the thoughtfulness of the designs.

Reflecting back, this project was a great exercise in creativity and gave me reassurance that I can in fact design; it didn't matter that I don’t have expertise in Photoshop or Illustrator. And since this project I've used Photoshop a couple times to edit or create photos for blog posts, and I realized I can learn that too! Designing is not some magical, unattainable skill.

But above all else this project assured me that if I set my mind to something, I’ll be able to figure it out. After learning a whole new software to design these books, I’m confident that I’ll be able to learn whatever program I need to for any purpose in the future. This is part of what’s awesome about interning at Metal Toad — I'm given projects that are completely out of my comfort zone and I come out learning things I never thought I would. I was given this project with little to no direction, and I figured it out. That is what the real world is like. I really appreciated that Metal Toad treated me like any other employee and trusted that I would get it done. Because I was not being micromanaged I was excited and found real purpose and self-satisfaction in the project.

And I can safely say that I can design as a non-designer.


Great post, Grace - very encouraging!

When we move forward despite fear we recognize and strengthen skills we were unaware of. It's a great way to get more accomplishments under our belt. Reading this helped me strengthen my resolve to conquer a Drupal challenge I have. Thanks!

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • You can enable syntax highlighting of source code with the following tags: <code>, <blockcode>, <cpp>, <java>, <php>. The supported tag styles are: <foo>, [foo].
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Ready to get started?