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10 Sneaky Ways to Detect an Amateur Designer

Kevin Whipps March 31, 2021 · 8 min read
Ding! That’s your inbox talking, so you pull up your email and see that it’s a note from your favorite client. “Hey, here’s our logo design. Can you tweak it to work for our website?” No biggie, right? Then you notice the file is a JPEG, and the wheels start to turn. When you open it up and find a jumbled mess of everything, it’s then that you realize what you’re working with: an amateur designer. Sometimes, though, it’s not that easy to sniff them out. You’ve got to do a bit more digging to be sure that your stalking victim is an actual rookie. No, you need some clues to help you along the way. Not all of the following tips are sneaky, per se, but they’ll certainly help you suss out who the newbies are, and give you an idea of what you’re in for.

Font Stretching

The worst — and I mean the worst — is when you see a font that you love, and you try to figure out what it is using Whatthefont or Identifont, but to no avail. And then, after doing some digging and wasting a ton of time, you realize that it’s a stretched version of something mundane, and you immediately want to punch a puppy in the mouth. OK, maybe not a puppy, but you get the idea. Font stretching is a rookie move for a number of reasons, but one of them is that there’s no reason to do it. There’s almost certainly an alternative font that can do what you’re asking it to do, so there’s that. Second, if you ever need to add text in later, you’ll never get it to match the now stretched version, because unless you’re writing down every spec, there’s no way to make the numbers work. Look, it’s a bad idea all around, so just stop it.

Mammoth Shadows, Huge Radiant Glows and Big Embossing

Remember when you were new to the graphic design world and you first learned how to do effects in Photoshop? Oh, I do, and I embossed and shadowed the crap out of everything I touched. If I wanted to get super fancy, I’d throw in a radiant glow, too. And you can bet your lasso tool that sometimes I’d even do all three like a boss. That’s right, I was that guy. Wanna catch an amateur in the wild? Look for the triple-threat of those effects used in excess. Understand that the tools are there for a reason, and nobody is saying that adding drop shadows to your design makes you an amateur. But what does is when the effects become the thing that steal the show, detracting from the design. All things in moderation, folks. Now if I could just listen to that advice when it comes to brownies, I’d be fine.

They’re a Frequent Participant in Design Contests

So I’m a writer and a designer, and I make money by both typing words into a computer and pushing pixels around a screen. People give me money for those services, because that’s how capitalism works. And then there are newbies who do their work for free, because they think it will give them exposure, getting them in the door at some big job. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. People hold logo contests to get work product for free, end of story. It brings down the rates for the rest of us who do need to eat, and unless you’re a complete amateur and have no intention of making money off your skills, stop screwing it up for the rest of us.

They don’t check their work

True story: a designer buddy of mine does work for a marketing company here in town, and he told me the other day about how excited he was to get his new assistant. “Why do you need an assistant?” I asked, knowing full well that he couldn’t possibly be busy enough to need one. As it turns out, he does have quite the workload, but the assistant isn’t a designer, they’re an English major. He needs a copy editor to spell check his work because he doesn’t look at it himself. You don’t need to be well versed in copyediting to work as a designer, but at least give it a cursory look before you push it on to the next level. Simple typos and misspellings are embarrassing, and if you incur extra expenses because of your mistakes, then it’s your butt on the line. It’s a rookie designer mistake, as pros always look over their work for both design and grammatical errors.

The Inability to Ship

Raise your hand if you’re a perfectionist. Yeah? Me too. Thing is, you’ve gotta let that go if you want to be a professional, because only amateurs sit on projects forever, missing their deadlines along the way. A true pro knows that no design is ever truly done, it’s just turned in. There’s always more tweaking to do. Is it frustrating? Absolutely. But after the first 10-15 times you get over it. Plus, paying your rent is usually a pretty solid motivator, as is the desire not to be fired. Ship your products, people. It’s the right thing to do. too many fonts

Font Overload

There’s no set rule on how many fonts you should have in a design, and what number is too many. But generally, 2-3 fonts is the standard, and again, there’s nothing definitive, but you know when there are too many fonts in a design when you see it. And boy, do amateur designers fall into this trap. The more fonts you use, the more cluttered your design looks. And even though you may think it makes it stand out, more often than not, the opposite is true. Sure, it may become popular and people may enjoy what you produce, but it’s not going to get you any kudos from your buddies in the field. In fact, it may pull in the opposite. image via Etsy

Incorrectly Formatted Designs

The rookie designs a company logo in Photoshop. Sure, it’s 10,000 pixels wide, but it’s still wrong. An amateur edits a photo for print that’s 72 DPI, not the required 300-plus that most magazines and companies require. A n00b uses the layers panel to hide pieces of reference, even though they can still be seen with just the click of a mouse. These are the kinds of mistakes that happen in the beginning, and while we, as professionals, can laugh them off at times, having one of these designs land in our laps to “fix” is a bit frustrating. The other day I had a logo come to me that was not only designed in Photoshop, but had a screenshot of an Android phone web page, plus 32 other layers (most of them invisible) full of junk. Oh, and the font was stretched, too. Glorious.

“Reappropriating” Someone’s Design

You see a cool design out there, and you think that nobody will notice if you just make a few tweaks and call it your own. Chances are good that the client hasn’t seen that movie/magazine/web page, right? Rookie mistake, buddy. Let’s just call this what it is: stealing. The amateur designer doesn’t understand the line that the rest of us draw when it comes to taking other people’s designs. Yes, it is possible to copy someone else’s work without ever having seen their stuff — everything is a remix, and all that — but doing it consciously is unconscionable. Follow Wheaton’s Law and you’ll be fine.


How do you know when you’ve done too much work? When you have 85 layers for one piece of text — that’s probably a good time to quit. Or there are a million fonts. And 18 colors. Get the picture? This is a trap that lots of amateur designers fall into, because it’s easy to get — as Aaron Draplin puts it — drunk on white space and start pushing pixels like a crazy person. Know when to say when, folks.

Not Keeping Up With Design Trends

I’ve got a buddy of mine who I don’t think has ever been on Behance, never posts his work on Dribbble and certainly doesn’t look at any other design websites, because his stuff is dated. It’s like he graduated design school and that’s where his knowledge stuck, and he’s just unwilling to learn anything new. And he’s been in the business now for over a decade. That’s an amateur move for sure, and one that a lot of beginning designers fall into. Don’t let yourself go down that rabbit hole. Learn something new every day and always try to expand your knowledge. It’s the right thing to do.
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About the Author
Kevin Whipps

Hi! My name is Kevin Whipps, and I'm a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. When I'm not working taking pictures of old cars and trucks, I'm either writing articles for Creative Market or hawking stickers at Whipps Sticker Co.

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  • "No when to say when, folks." Spellcheck didn't catch that one! 6 years ago
  • Great article Kevin! And all absolutely true. 6 years ago
  • Bingo Rene... 6 years ago
  • As a total rookie in the "shows passion but should not be encouraged" category, this is awesome. I may not be guilty of all these mistakes but definitely some of them. 6 years ago
  • "Font stretching is a rookie move for a number of reasons, but one of them is that there's no reason to do it. There's almost certainly an alternative font that can do what you're asking it to do, so there's that. Second, if you ever need to add text in later, you'll never get it to match the now stretched version, because unless you're writing down every spec, there's no way to make the numbers work. Look, it's a bad idea all around, so just stop it." I disagree. How would you like it if for every variant of a font you use a different one ? That might be ok in photoshop, or whatever program you are using, but take it out of there, load it in a website, an app, it's shit. "Font stretching" is also known as font manipulation. If you just need a stretched font all across, just modify the font file, make it a new one. If you neeed the same font, just stretched, then stretch it. It's a rookie mistake not to be humble and try to understand other people's techniques. Also, it's a rookie mistake not to note down all the specs. 6 years ago
  • Strongly disagree with the "no font stretching" point. There's a time and place for everything. Also you can't really write a point about proofing your own work, then leave multiple errors in the text. C'mon now. ROOKIE MOVE. ;) 6 years ago
  • @Charles Mertens [@René Lausen](user:747446) all fixed, friends. Thanks for catching that 😄 6 years ago
  • Geez, I'm going to go sit in the corner for a while and think about all the grammatical errors I've made lately. 6 years ago
  • Interesting read...but as a (very) mature second year degree student hugely confidence crushing..I'd be afraid to do any work in front of you. Everyone has to learn, even the award laden designers made rookie errors at the start of their career I'd bet. My age will probably work against me when I graduate and realistic employment in the graphic design sector will probably not be a viable option but I'd hate to think I was working with someone who has such a high opinion of themselves that they have forgotten that they were a rookie once too. Disappointing. 6 years ago
  • "Reappropriating" Someone's Design: Isn't this the reason why design marketplaces are here? I sell many templates because I know amateur designers will take my templates and tweak them for their own clients. I don't believe it's good to knock these types of artists because that's our target audience for many products within this marketplace. 6 years ago
  • I will pretty much always disagree with your last point. That doesn't mean it's okay for your design to be dated. Rather, designers should be innovating. The web is one place the "follow trends" drum is beat mercilessly; the result is a lot of pretty cool looking sites that, um, look a lot alike. Make your design stand out. For good reasons, of course... 6 years ago
  • @Marlene Hobson - I'm not sure these things should make you afraid to design in front of a professional, as much as they should make you cognizant of what a professional designer does. Keeping clean files with descriptive layer names [and deleting anything unused] is something really important, particularly in agency settings, where you might not be the only person touching a working file. This stuff doesn't matter when you're in school - I whipped together so much junk with hundreds of unnamed files and layer comps I never looked at again. But I wouldn't hand that file off to somebody else to have them try to make sense of what I was doing. Things like formatting and consistency are also super important in a professional environment - they don't mean you suck at what you do if you're doing them, but they are really important in the workplace. A first-year designer without workplace experience doesn't really find themselves too bothered by these things. There's nothing wrong with being a rookie -- any professional was one at one point. Maybe it'd make more sense to frame it as 'things that become really important once you start working as a designer for a living.' 6 years ago
  • [@Derek - Creativenauts](user:13786) I don't really think using a template is really cheating, if that's not all you do. I mean, a designer who just resells templates is problematic - but there's certainly a place for purchasing certain types of pre-made graphics. You'd never consider using stock photography instead of going out and taking new images for every project cheating. Usually each individual will have their own strength - there are designers who are fantastic illustrators but not great at UI / UX / Web design. There are ones with the exact opposite issue. I find every client expects you to be 100% full-service, but that's not really realistic. I might have a great idea for a site but I don't have the time or budget to create a new icon set from scratch, for instance. I think the issue is mostly when it comes to soley re-appropriating other designers work instead of ever doing your own. Though I find in the world of web design these days (particularly with the flat design trend + mobile first design) that sites look so similar you'd never know if everybody was copying off of each other or not. 6 years ago
  • Design gaffes are not merely the domain of rookies. As Plato and a number of other Greeks advised: Know thyself. You can be the world's greatest illustrator, but that doesn't mean you know how to sculpt marble. I know a person who is a fabulous watercolorist. The local arts council for some illogical reason decided she would be the logical choice to design their logo. BIG mistake. Take initials of agency. Use fat block letters and line them up. Color each letter a solid primary color. She was obviously trying to avoid creating a miniature watercolor and focused on simplicity. Nice try, but the result was unimaginative, boring and entirely inappropriate to symbolize a group whose hallmark is creativity. 6 years ago
  • yeah?.... what is trendy for you? "trendiness" not always fits the purpose of the final design... i saw "trendy" posters few days ago so so busy and overdesigned that defeat the purposes of clear informacion and whole meaning of the poster.... uf... 6 years ago
  • You know, vis-a-vis Wheaton's Law (which itself was a bit ahem, BORROWED from others...), and not "stealing" designs--I'm sure that all of you know that designs, when applied to layout, are NOT copyrighted and not copyrightable, for that matter. You could layout the most awesome website in the known Netverse, and the reality is--the layout does NOT belong to you, or anyone else. You've donated the layout to the world, effectively. The site owner owns the content, of course--but how it's laid out? Ixnay. (I'd also point out that even IF the layout were copyrightable, unless you created it on your own dime and own time, it would belong to the site owner, anyway.) What irks me is behavior that refuses to recognize this. You can go to sites like, and read all about how some poor small biz owner asks Noble Designer Nick to "do what that other site did in terms of layout," to see designers excoriating the small biz owner as if he's SCUM. He's not scum. It's not copyrighted. It's not even unethical. Otherwise, let's explain the 9 bazillion articles that design sites, webmaster sites, etc., post each year about "The 25 Best Landing Pages!," "Best menu designs," and so on. WHY are those all posted? SO THAT OTHER PEOPLE CAN USE THEM, that's why. Why are website templates and themes created? So that other people can USE THEM, that's why. Guys, homaging someone else's design, only, isn't being a dick. Stealing content? Yup, dick. Stealing other stuff, like drawn IP, watercolors, even things like Powerpoint templates, and so on? Yup, theft and definitely dickish. But using a design? Sadly, under law, it's not copyrighted material. And we can ALL see just what a nightmare that would turn into. After all, form follows function. Would the John Doe magazine site get sued by Conde Nast, for even HAVING a "magazine layout?" Lastly, let's face it--the very LAST people on the Net who want "layout" to be copyrighted are....wait for guys and gals. I remember, back when I had an Expression Engine website (look it up, kiddos), the EE "experts" and "web designers" would create a site layout, plugging in the same content types (e.g., "blog goes here, classifieds go there, news for the day in the center...") and then sell those sites, OVER AND OVER, as "custom websites," starting at Six Thou and up, to small business owners. You really think that those guys want DESIGNS that they made for Client X to be copyrighted to Client X? Instead of reusable? Methinks not. In closing--yes, I'd feel dreadful if I stole something outright from someone else, copyrightable or not. But my point is, it's not that black and white. 6 years ago
  • "Font stretching is a rookie move ... there's no reason to do it. There's almost certainly an alternative font that can do what you're asking it to do" - well, years ago i stretched Arial (not exactly an exotic font) in my LOGO. thanks to you, i just wasted hours trying to fix my "rookie mistake" looking for an equivalent font but there isn't one anywhere that i can find that looks right. so i shall note the specs and keep my stretched font thank you very much, lol. 6 years ago
  • That bit about "font stretching" is bollocks. Everybody has done it at one point or another, and NO, there isn't always another font that will work. And who says that the "font that would work" is affordable? What if you need something like AvenirNext, for a piddling $2400 for the entire font family? Oh, yeah, pennies. Were it me, I'd grab something ELSE and I'd sure as hell stretch it, if it were something minor for a single use. OR, as bit kahuna says, above, a logo, in which he couldn't find something suitable. Sheesh, nothing like blanket condemnation of a given practice as a "rookie move." There are a host of things that really DO signal newbie status; we don't have to condemn everyone who does it. After all--everybody learns SOMEPLACE at some TIME in the past. We've all made rookie mistakes in one field or another. Doesn't mean that the Design Police are going to show up at your door and take you away to Font Manipulation Concentration Camp for the summer. 6 years ago
  • "An amateur edits a photo for print that's 72 DPI, not the required 300-plus that most magazines and companies require." Well, an amateur just doesn't know that it actually doesn't matter what DPI your picture has in the first place. DPI only get important when it comes to the output device (e.g.printer), but for editing on a monitor which has PIXEL per inch, the DOTS per inch are irrelevant ;) 6 years ago
  • Yeah, but even then, the PPI is irrelevant, too. That refers pretty strictly to the device screen that will be displaying the image--not the image itself. At that point, all that matters are the dimensions--X pixels wide by Y pixels tall (height). :-) 6 years ago
  • Yep you're right @Kimberly Hitchens :) 6 years ago
  • GMTA @Jana! (Great Minds Think Alike) :'s the hardest thing in the WORLD to explain! :-) 6 years ago
  • Phew so glad about the font stretching ;) have definitely done it! Not that I would call myself a graphic designer so certainly a newbie in terms of fonts and drop shadows and all that! 6 years ago
  • Agree. 10+ year freelancer here and can admit to having made some of these mistakes early on. It's all about education. 6 years ago
  • What a nonsense article! Most of the points can easily be applied to a seasoned professional and are also appropriate if relevant to the brief or the requirement of the project. Not every font has to be used as it's supplied, and not every logo can / has to be a vector. How many designers / companies haven't had 'The Inability to Ship' when it comes to their own promo work: 'New Website Coming Soon' (that's not just because they don't have time!) And when is 'Overdesigning' using too many layers? That just means you're probably not using the application as effectively as you could. And for the record unfortunately everyone steals... but most call it 'inspiration' 6 years ago
  • Thank god you forgot Comic Sans :) Last week I had a client who asked for a restaurant menu with comic sans, so I delivered a nice piece of work with a really wide smile on my face. 5 years ago
  • Nice article but I'd like to point out that there are designers with dyslexia and other Learning disabilities who do not have a choice but to Hire a proof reader. Being a seasoned professional has nothing to do with being able to spell things correctly. 5 years ago
  • Nice article and point of view, I'm not agree with everything but I see your point! 4 years ago
  • I found this post on Pinterest, and I admit I came over to make sure I wasn't an amateur designer. I'm self taught and my confidence level swings like a pendulum. This post reassured me that I'm still going in the right direction. It was also enjoyable to read! 4 years ago
  • Unless your David Carson, don't font stretch! Don't take responsibility for spelling unless your a copywriter. You have American English and English. A lot of words have multiple spellings, especially ingredients if you do menus. I would charge way more to do spell checking in your client work. Creative Market is the home of Reappropriating! It's funny that it would be posted on here! 4 years ago
  • There is NO reason, NO justification, NO way on God's green earth, that there is ever any excuse for font-stretching. (Unless it's 'Your Thing') Same as image stretching. You're a designer, you make s**t fit! That's what leading, kerning, and condensed font's are for? What's kerning? AMATEUR!!!!! :D 4 years ago