Graphic design is more popular by the day. Although it’s increasingly easy to start doing it, it takes more than an online course to perfect it. It’s an art, and like any other, it can be really, really bad. Here’s how to spot bad design and learn to improve it.
When you think about bad design, the first thing that comes to mind in today’s day and age is Comic Sans, Papyrus, excessive and blatant Photoshopping and other hilarious staples that went into the annals of meme history.
But bad design isn’t always obnoxious and oh-so-obviously terrible. Sometimes it might be visually appealing but won’t serve a purpose. Sometimes it’s misleading. Sometimes it’s bold and creative but totally misses the target audience.
In this article, we’ll deep dive into common mistakes and wrong decisions that even a good designer can make, as well as the most obvious examples of bad design (and bad designers).
To make it simpler for you to navigate this guide, we’ve split it into four chapters:
Before we start pointing fingers, it’s good to know that bad designers can become good designers, with experience, knowledge and willingness to learn new styles. Some of these bad designer traits aren’t necessarily based on their technical skills, as much as their personal traits and unwillingness to cooperate. Here are the red flags you should look out for.
This one might be somewhat obvious, but a designer who just connected together a mishmash of stock photos and vectors and just added the text from the brief isn’t a designer who gave some thought into what you need as a client. That is just simply executing the order, not designing. Vectors, stock photos and free illustrations are design elements that even non-designers can create a visual with, and a professional is expected to create something unique and creative.
Image credit: Venggage
You have a clear need, some specific requests and maybe limitations (brand identity, tone of voice, social media sponsoring rules, etc.), but your designer feels too creative and free to be limited by design briefs. This is a clear sign that they can’t find a way to incorporate their style and design skills into your request.
In marketing, different generations, geographic locations, cultures, etc, have different perceptions of design. For example, millennials want pastel, muted colors, simple typography and straightforward design. Boomers want flashy, in-your-face letterheads, brighter colors and bigger text.
Or location-wise: Western audiences perceive information left to right, whereas Eastern cultures, like Japanese, Mandarin, or Arabic native speakers are used to reading right to left, so naturally the focal point of the design has to be on the right side. If you’re working with freelance designers who are from a much different background than you, you’ll possibly need to state things that are obvious to you in your design brief.
Different colors have different meanings in cultures all over the world. The typically western audience thinks of purity and elegance when they see white, but in China, white is a color worn at funerals.
And it’s not just about obvious things. Sometimes the tone of voice or aesthetic of the design has to fit a certain group’s tastes, so your designer needs to know the target audience they are designing for.
It’s great when a designer has their own style that they stick to. Visual design is part skill, part creative flair, and having your own recognizable aesthetic is a huge advantage. But it’s also important to adapt that style to the client’s needs, because they have a branding guide, target audience, rules and limitations, etc.
Working with creatives isn’t easy for non-designers. Your average client doesn’t know what letterheads and embossing are, how much white space is enough white space, and why their copy is too big to fit in the design they want.
The gap in technical knowledge and the fact that clients often don’t have a clear idea of what they want their design to look like, or how much time and effort is needed for a certain product, is a big obstacle in the final product. But a good designer should know how to overcome those obstacles through clear and fair communication with clients. If they are arrogant, unclear, don’t explain anything clearly and go on with their strategy without consulting you as a client. Maybe you should consider that a professional faux pas and reevaluate your choice of designer.
Clients can also be stubborn and set their minds to a certain idea that might seem great to them, but in design terms, it might be terrible. If your designer doesn’t advise you against a bad idea and back the argument with design tips that make sense to the average client, consider that a big red flag.
A good designer will try to explain why a good graphic design doesn’t always mean they’ll stick to your original idea or wish, but will also find a way to incorporate the core of your theme or brief in a final product that works much better.
Similarly, if they never ask questions, it can be a telltale sign that they will just paste together elements to check all the requests in your brief, without thinking too much about a new idea or innovative approach or offering their own ideas.
When considering employing an in-house designer or hiring a freelance designer, as a small business owner or content creator, you will probably take a look at their portfolio. If all you see is one style and one product, you might want to think twice. It’s good to be an expert in something and find your niche, but chances are you’ll need all sorts of products and design looks from them, so a one-size-fits-all approach to design doesn’t work at all.
As we mentioned before, there’s a thin line between good and bad design. Sometimes a designer might stick to all the rules and the client’s brief, but completely miss the tone of voice. Or design a beautiful creation and keep adding design elements until they overdo it.
Here are common mistakes that can make any design bad.
The placement of text and images in layouts can sometimes be crucial. It’s necessary to think of the final product and not just take the aesthetic reasons and composition rules in mind.
Image source: Reddit
Image source: Wackyy
Kerning, for the non-designers here, is the adjusting of spacing between the letters. Sometimes a typeface will have too little space between some letters, or too much between others, so manual kerning can fix the problem and enhance legibility.
When a graphic designer doesn’t offer their kerning skills, however, big, big problems can occur, like in these incredible design fails.
Source: Wired Gorilla
There are many ways people perceive color in different cultures, and color psychology is here to help designers. Psychologists research how we perceive color for decades, and we can easily base graphic design and its effect on those findings. However, there are also color combinations that you have to avoid, most often for obvious reasons.
Some color combinations make text illegible, others are close to nauseating, some are just tacky. So, keep in mind that color can hugely affect your design.
Image credit: dontbetonit.tripod.com
Designers naturally have a lot of theoretical knowledge and experience, and they base their creations on that. But sometimes, they forget about the users of the final product and their experience. Thinking about the user experience first is especially important in web design because websites that aren’t easy to navigate are also websites with the highest bounce rate.
Image source: Interaction Design
Image credit: Baubauhaus
Designers who have studied design theory are aware that white space is needed to ensure your design elegance and good user experience. It is also crucial to add white space around the focal point of the design, otherwise, the viewer’s eye doesn’t know what to focus on, and it massively improves readability.
But non-designers often want every single pixel of a design to be effectively used, hence oversaturating and drowning the design completely. A good designer should know how to sparingly use the white space and create a natural free space around the design elements.
Image source: Interaction Design
Image credit: blog.teamtreehouse.com
A designer has to be well-versed in the latest trends and keep on improving and reading. No matter if it’s data that marketing strategies are based on, or aesthetic tone that a certain group is responding positively to, a good graphic designer will know how to adapt to what is modern and attractive.
That is also the reason why huge companies with well-known branding sometimes rebrand: they want to be approachable to new audiences as well.
Read more about current logo design trends here.
Every typeface has its own character and spirit it lends to the design. A good designer should know that serif fonts are more suitable for body text, and sans serif fonts are harder to read but more elegant. Or that Comic Sans is considered the biggest sin a designer can commit.
Sometimes typography even in logo design is so bad, that even Saturday Night Live is in on the joke, like the legendary Papyrus skit starring Ryan Gosling making fun of the “Avatar” logo.
Image credit: The Verge
Jokes aside, there are many uses for different typography, and not every font can be used in any situation or need.
Likewise, it’s not usual to use more than a maximum of three different fonts (headings, body text, logo design, etc.), so if your designer uses an abundance of fonts, be aware that the result will most likely be tacky and hard to comprehend.
Since a large portion of advertisements and marketing assets are placed online today, many graphic designers are focused on desktop-friendly designs. But keep in mind that the number of people surfing online on their smartphones is getting bigger by the day, and you have to consider that whatever design you need has to be responsive for mobile use as well.
Similarly, a good graphic designer has to know that what they design on their computer doesn’t look identical in print, and will need to design or convert to CMYK colors before print.
It might seem trivial and unimportant, but graphic designers don’t proofread your copies. That is why an amazing design can be a laughing stock. Designers copy and paste the copy you added in the brief, and if you don’t take care of spelling and grammar yourself, you might end up with a terrible example of graphic design.
Image credit: lustalux.co.uk
Image credit: The Toronto Star
There are other mistakes a business can make that will result in a non-effective, bland visual identity. You can find more information here.
If you need some basic theory to understand whether or not the products you got are respecting the principles that graphic design is based on, take a look at the 10 commandments every good designer abides by.
The principle of balance exists to ensure stability and structure to the design. Every design element has its own weight, so the designer has to balance them out. It’s important to know that weight doesn’t equal size. For example, a small red circle can have more weight than a big white circle.
Balance can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. Symmetrical balance is when the weight of all the elements is evenly divided into both sides of the design (left and right, up and down, diagonally), whereas asymmetrical uses scale, color and contrast.
With movement, a graphic designer instructs the eye of the viewer to a certain predetermined path in the composition. Designers use this principle to achieve an effect of visual illusion of external force that is moving the objects.
Rhythm suggests that certain objects in design need to be repeated with small changes applied to them.
The principle of proportion relates to adding visual weight and size of the elements in a design, conditioning how they interact with each other. Proportion is also called scale.
You can use elements of a different size to create a focal point or highlight the importance of each element to the overall composition. Using elements of different sizes creates a point of focus and visual proximity.
Contrast means a drastic difference between the two opposing design elements. It can be achieved with color (dark vs light), size (small vs big), style (contemporary vs old-fashioned), etc. It helps guide the eye of the viewer to some key elements.
The space that is left blank is called negative (or white) space. It is the area between or around the elements. If used creatively and effectively, it can create a shape around the elements or highlight the important elements in a design. It is also needed to give some space to the design to breathe, and the eye of the viewer to know what to focus on.
Repetition is a fundamental design element, especially when it comes to branding. It creates a rhythm and strengthens the overall design by tying together consistent elements such as logo and color palette, making the brand or design instantly recognizable to viewers.
Hierarchy is a principle that means arranging elements in a certain structure so that the viewer can absorb the information in a simple and comprehensive manner.
Emphasis is achieved when we add extra visual weight to the most important element or message in a design. It can be achieved by using various techniques: larger or bolder fonts to highlight the title, putting the most important message higher or in front of the rest of the elements, adding a hot color in a generally colder design to the most important part of the text, etc.
Variety means adding different elements that jump out of the usual and/or are visually striking, to ensure a design isn’t monotonous and boring.
If you are a graphic designer in need of improving their skills or a client of a graphic designer that needs to better understand the process behind designing, there are multiple ways to learn and stay informed.
You can find design blogs that go above and beyond in explaining all things graphic design, such as Abduzeedo, Adobe Create Magazine, The Inspiration Grid, Identity Designed, and many others. Don’t forget to check our own ManyPixels Blog as well.
If you are a person who learns easily by listening, there are many podcasts on graphic design as well. Check out a list of the best design podcasts in 2020 here.
And of course, as with any other artistic skill, you’ll need a lot of work done before making sure that you are a good graphic designer or understand what good graphic design is.
We hope this guide helped you understand the basics of good graphic design, and remember some telltale signs of bad design. And if you need help, who better to call than ManyPixels? Learn how our platform works here.