What separates good design from bad?


A layperson’s guide to identifying good communication design.

Bad design

Bad design is like noise. Like clutter. It can be frustrating, dull, or annoying. It may be as bad as actually ugly, or simply unremarkable and therefore not worthy of someone’s attention. To your audience, bad design is an obstacle instead of an enabler. At best, bad design does not help your cause; at worst, it hinders your cause by creating an obstacle for the audience to climb over. Why create more obstacles to getting your audiences’ attention?

Good design

Good design makes it easy for your audience to hear you, to “get it”, to tell others, and take action. Good design helps your audience understand your message — which helps you achieve your goals. Good design creates delight, ease, joy, and efficiency. Good design attracts positive attention.

This list says nothing about the subtleties that make a design sing, it really only highlights how to avoid things that will almost definitely make a design suck!

But how do you tell the difference?

Here is a list of clues to help identify good design even if you don’t have design experience or education under your belt:

  1. Good design usually has generous clear space around the graphic elements.

  2. Good design usually has no more than two typeface families

    (a.k.a fonts1).

  3. In good design some things are aligned with other things.

    (Sounds easy right? Yet people get it wrong all the time… )

  4. In good design the colours are usually muted and harmonious.

    (There are numerous exceptions to this, but bad design usually has high-contrasting, bright, and screaming colours, so it worth directing you away from them altogether.)

  5. Good design will not use any of MS Word’s garish default colours.

    (Neon green next to cherry red anyone? How about lemon yellow on a white background?)

  6. Good design will use correct typographic symbols like hyphens, dashes and quotation marks.

  7. Generally, good design usually does not contain centered items, borders, gradients, badly feathered photos, or strong drop-shadows.

  8. Good design usually has one central focal point.

  9. Good design has no underlining, ALL CAPS, or double spaces between sentences.

  10. Good design looks like it was designed this year, and not when the Web was invented.

  11. Good design does not make your designer friends grimace; instead they smile, and say “Nice! Very nice.”

Warning: Only an experienced pro can successfully break from these guidelines.

These are clues, not rules. They are very general because getting more specific means using specialized terminology, having experience, and a honed design sense — which are exactly the things a layperson generally doesn’t have when trying to tell the difference between good and bad design.

This list says nothing about the subtleties2 that make a design sing, it really only highlights how to avoid things that will almost definitely make a design suck!

If all these guidelines are followed, you still might not have a remarkable design on your hands, but you’ll be on the right track. I know this doesn’t sound very definitive. These clues won’t turn you in to a designer, but they may help you sort out the bad designs from the good ones with more confidence. 

Then again, you can always ask a designer.


1Fonts vs. Typefaces

A typeface is an entire family of fonts. It describes every version of a style of type. e.g. Arial, DIN, Helvetica.

A font is a specific version of the style. e.g. Helvetica italic; or Arial bold. (In the ol' days, it also used to specify the size, but with computers this meaning has been lost)

2Making design sing

So, what are those subtleties that make a design sing? How does a designer with a good eye turn a bunch of mundane elements into a piece that reaches out and grabs you? They will use their skill and understanding of contrast, proportion, dynamism, flow, hierarchy, consistency, emphasis, balance, grids, movement, usability, space, colour, typography, semiotics, composition and, of course, meaning and emotion. A good design will succeed in expressing the intended message to the intended audience in a memorable way — the ultimate goal of any visual communication project.