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Social-first design: Unleash the potential of engaging content for digital success

Last Updated 
Posted on
August 18, 2023
Valentina Kallenbach
Brand Marketing

In today's digital world, running from social media is almost impossible. About 4.48 billion people use social platforms worldwide, which is about 56.8% of the world's population. It's safe to say that swiping, scrolling, and clicking have become an integral part of our daily lives, revolutionizing the way we consume information. Social media has become a powerful tool for businesses to connect with their audience, and understanding how to leverage it through strategic design decisions is crucial.

What is "Social First Design"? 

The term "Social First" revolves around creating content that is tailored to specific social media channels. Social First keeps in mind the end user, the platforms, and your brand, rather than adapting layouts to fit different platforms. It’s all about understanding the specifications of each platform and its nuances without losing the concept behind your idea.

5 tips to keep in mind when designing for social

Every day, an overwhelming amount of content is created—which leads to posts being easily lost and forgotten in the midst of this sea of information. In order for your designs to be impactful, captivating, and most of all, long-lasting, you have to make sure your design ticks all these boxes:

1. Create an impactful layout: Unlike print or long-form content, social media posts demand immediate curiosity. You need to be able to tell a story at first glance and catch your audience's attention so they don't scroll past your post. The key is to communicate the message using eye-catching visuals. You can do this by organizing and creating a clear hierarchy for the information, making sure your layout has personality and stands out on its own while also being part of a bigger concept. This makes it straight to the point and easy to understand.

2. Be mindful of the platform: Each social media platform has its unique features, constraints, and audience. It is critical that you are aware of which platform you are designing for. They all have different ratios and sizes, and you want to make sure your layout fits perfectly on screen. You also have to be aware of the platform's limitations when adapting a layout for different channels. PDFs, carousels, and infographics are all great content, but knowing where to use each is crucial.

3. Mobile comes first!: 84.85% of smartphone owners access social media from their phones. Approaching your layout with a mobile-first mindset is an essential design strategy. Designing for mobile displays can prevent your design from getting lost in your audience's busy feed. A horizontal post with a considerable amount of copy might be a solution on desktop, but it's definitely a no-go for mobile. Ensure content is easily viewable, readable, and navigable on smaller screens. Remember: a design isn't supposed to just look great—it has to be functional too.

4. Make your design digestible:  Making your design impactful does not mean adding all the brand colors and graphic elements, or using four different text styles (please don't do that 😅). It’s about knowing how to separate and hierarchize information. Intentionally lead the eye of the user through your layout to read elements in a specific order. Make sure your layout has a strong focal point that will catch the user's attention and dictate how your audience will read the content. This is a great opportunity to continue to implement basic design concepts—white space, contrasting colors, positioning, alignment, and indenting are all the cherry on top and will elevate your layout and make it easy to digest.

5. Work alongside content: Many brands make the mistake of siloing content and design when they aren’t two separate elements; they are two powerful forces that dictate the success of a social media post. A beautifully-designed post means nothing without engaging captions and catchy headlines. When these two pillars work together, both teams are able to consult each other and understand the best solutions for a layout. Whether it's cutting down some text so your layout can breathe, thinking about a greater concept that involves both copy and design, or simply brainstorming together to come up with a unique idea, good social media embraces balance. 

Here's a tip from Emily Desrosiers, our Senior Content Manager:  "Every month our content and creative teams join forces to perform industry and competitor research. We add ideas to an "inspiration document" and have free-flowing brainstorming sessions about ways to put our own unique spin on the content. Then we incorporate the concepts into upcoming calendars. By doing this on a regular basis, we're able to ensure our client's social media feeds stay relevant, fresh, and engaging."

Gestalt principles of Graphic Design: how to incorporate that into your social layouts 

Now that you have a broad idea of what can help you create strong social media layouts, understanding the practical steps to achieve that revolves around leveraging basic design rules and principles such as the Gestalt.

There is a difference between beautiful design and functional design. A beautiful design doesn't necessarily have to follow design principles or theories, it can just have contrasting colors and a great font. But a functional design is much more complex than that. Functional designs are the combination of visually-appealing layouts and technical execution, and that's what you want to aim for when designing for social. You have a few seconds to captivate your audience, so you need to use all the tools in your favor. Using the Gestalt Principles might be a good way to start.

What are the Gestalt Principles?

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, the Gestalt Principles are "[...] principles/laws of human perception that describe how humans group similar elements, recognize patterns and simplify complex images when we perceive objects. Designers use the principles to organize content on websites and other interfaces so it is aesthetically pleasing and easy to understand."

Using the Gestalt principles in design can significantly enhance the visual appeal and user experience of a design. These principles are based on the concept that the human brain naturally organizes elements into meaningful patterns and structures, which creates functional designs. 

Using the Gestalt principles when designing

1. Principle of Proximity: Elements that are close together are perceived as belonging together. Grouping related elements together can establish visual relationships and organize information more effectively without having to make this relationship explicit.
Incorporating that into social design: If you are designing a pros and cons table, placing the pros elements to the left of your layout and the cons to the right of your layout will create a clear divide in the design, which is the end goal when making comparisons.

2. Principle of Similarity:  Elements that share similar attributes, such as shape, color, or size, are perceived as belonging to the same group.
Incorporating that into social design: Use this principle to group related content or highlight specific elements. This makes it easier for viewers to understand the structure of the design and identify important information.

3. Principle of Continuity: The eye naturally follows continuous lines or curves, even when they are interrupted by other elements.
Incorporating that into social design: Designers can use this principle to guide the user's eye through the post, leading them to focus on essential content or follow a specific visual path, such as a logo, CTA or headline.

4. Principle of Closure: The brain tends to complete incomplete shapes or patterns to perceive them as whole.
Incorporating that into social design: You can leverage this by incorporating minimalistic or abstract visuals in a post, allowing your audience to actively engage with the design and mentally complete the missing elements.

5. Principle of Common Region: When elements are located in the same closed region, we perceive them as belonging to the same group.
Incorporating that into social design: Items within the same category can be placed within a common region, such as a colored box or a container with a distinct outline.

6. Principle of Figure and Ground: Individuals naturally perceive objects as either in the foreground or the background, with some elements standing out prominently as the main focus (the figure) while others recede into the backdrop (the ground).
Incorporating that into Social design: Use this concept by selecting a clear background and using design elements or assets as props to enrich your layout and concept.

7. Principle of Common Fate: Elements that move together in a coordinated way and in the same direction tend to be perceived as a cohesive and unified group.
Incorporating that into social design: If you want to highlight a part of your layout in a subtle way, you can animate elements to flow to the part of your layout that you want to stand out.

8. Principle of Symmetry: Our minds naturally perceive symmetrical objects as part of the same group.
Incorporating that into social design: You can use this principle in a social post by arranging images symmetrically so that you create a balanced layout.

Whenever possible, make sure to apply at least one of the Gestalt principles to one of your social posts. It not only helps to make your layout stronger, but it also helps to scientifically support your design decisions. Design is not only about creating pretty layouts, but also about technical and conceptual theories that strengthen all decisions in the creative process. It never hurts to be backed by theory 🙂

Final best practices

In an ideal world, designers can control every step involved in the creation process of a social media post, but that is not realistic. Alternatively, you can learn how to adapt and make the most of your challenges, and in the process learn how to be flexible, increase your communication skills, and learn from other individuals involved in the social media process, like copywriters, strategists, and motion designers. Here are some final best practices to keep in mind when designing your next social media batch:

  1. Don't dismiss others’ ideas: When working with brands, you have to learn how to adapt to feedback and be empathetic to requests without compromising quality and the concept of your layout, and that can be tricky. Knowing how to give in or push back is a skill that every designer should learn how to master, especially when it comes to building long-lasting relationships—you have to be open to others’ ideas but also have a critical mind. Learning how to give orientation and provide alternatives is the way to go.

For example, if someone wants a post to have long copy in the image, instead of shutting them down, consider turning it into an infographic and advise them on how this can benefit how the post will be perceived by their audience. Another classic roadblock designers usually face is being asked to use a low-resolution image on a social media post. Unfortunately, using poor-quality images can cheapen the look and feel of a business, and that should be a no-go. Instead of saying no, it's important that you take the opportunity to explain the repercussions and educate, bringing in suggestions to use an alternative image or create an infographic that can substitute said image. Learning how to compromise is the key to a successful social media presence. 

  1. Add a little bit of spice: According to a Twitter study, animated GIFs garner 55% more engagement than posts without it, so adding subtle animations is a quick and efficient way to get your engagement rate flying high. If you don't have experience with animation tools like After Effects, don't sweat—Canva has a bunch of preset animations you can use to spruce up your social media post. Adding a quick fade-in effect on an image or adding popup effects to your CTA can really make your post shine.

  2. Check your file size before posting: Your audience will scroll past posts that take a while to load—that is a fact. Most platforms don't accept files that are bigger than 5MB, but you should really aim for 2MB. If it takes too long to load, you might as well not post it at all. You have less than 2 seconds to really catch your audience's attention. Don't waste that precious time in a post that won't load properly. If you are sharing a static image, you can use tools like TinyPNG to compress your file without losing quality, which is the end goal. LinkedIn PDF's also have to be optimized, especially if you are using a lot of graphics and images. iLovePDF is an online platform that can optimize and compress your PDF to the size of your choice to ensure you are not putting out too big of a file.

  3. Name your files correctly: RealFinalVersion_389743.png is not the proper way to name your file! 🥴 Make sure you are using naming conventions that work for you and that are appropriate to be seen by your audience. PDF's on LinkedIn, for example, are shared with the file name in it. Invest some extra minutes on naming files and you will be headache-free.

Social media design is a powerful tool that can make or break your online presence. Understanding the nuances of each platform and crafting captivating and digestible content stands out amidst the vast sea of social media content. Collaborate with content to create exceptional posts that resonate with your audience, evoke emotions, and inspire meaningful interactions. This will lead to conceptually strong designs that leave a lasting impact on the minds of your audience. Happy designing!

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