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How to Recognize the Difference Between Good Design Versus Bad Design

What is Good Design?

Graphic design
February 11, 2022
25 minutes

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Good graphic design. What does that look like, and is there a system to it? If you are curious about graphic design, this article is for you. Because when it comes to succeeding in the business world, good design is pretty crucial.

“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people.” - Dieter Rams.

But, what is good design? If we want to answer that question, we need some help. Dieter Rams, a German industrial designer/architect, knows a thing or two about good design.

Rams designed many of Braun’s consumer products and has been in the business for over 60 years. During his quest to answer the question “Is my design a good design?” he established the 10 design principles.

These principles are pillars in the graphic design world and are widely used to determine whether a design is good or not. If we want to know what the concept of good design is, it’s not a bad idea to start with these principles.

Dieter Rams’ ideas are still relevant today. In the 1970s, Rams introduced the idea of sustainable development and labeled obsolescence as a crime in design. This philosophy still stands today. That is quite a feat, considering the 50 years of technological innovation and the evolution of design that came afterward.

At one point, Rams grew aware that he and his designs directly impacted the world surrounding him. And that’s where his curiosity about the concept of good design kicked in.

Sure, design is subjective. But Rams believed there are at least ten essential principles that can serve as good design metrics.

According to Dieter Rams, good design:

1. is innovative

Innovative design and the development of technology go together like bread and butter. However, design never ends in itself; it always develops in tandem with improving technology.

2. makes a product useful

At the end of the day, you purchase a product to use it. Its looks may play some part in your decision to purchase. However, aesthetics do not trump usability, so the design should emphasize the usefulness and functionalities of a product. It should never distract the user from it.

3. is aesthetic

An aesthetically pleasing design is appealing to the eye on surface level. On a deeper level, it can positively affect people and their emotions. Or, in Rams’ words: “Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.”

4. makes a product understandable

The design of a product should clearly show its function. Playing into the user’s intuition, good design instantly shows the purpose of the product, making it self-explanatory.

5. is unobtrusive

An obtrusive design will be distracting from a product’s purpose. Therefore, design should be neutral in comparison to the purpose of the product.

6. is honest

It should not make a product appear something that it’s not. Good design should not try to manipulate the consumer with false promises.

7. is long-lasting

Even in today’s fast-paced society, design should be durable. Avoid being trendy to ensure your design never appears outdated.

8. is thorough down to the last detail

With respect to the consumer, nothing should be left to chance. In other words, no detail should be overlooked. Care and accuracy are essential.

9. is environmentally friendly

Good design is created to have minimal impact on the environment. A product’s lifecycle should be minimal in pollution (both physically and visually) and resources.

10. is as little design as possible

In short: less is more. Back to basics!

What is graphic design?

Graphic design is a form of visual communication that provides information. It lays out ideas and changes how the audience thinks about particular subjects. According to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), “Design mediates between people and decisions; whether subtle or overt, design promotes a point of view,”

While art and graphic design are similar on many levels, they are different in terms of their purpose. Art is about evoking questions, while graphic design is about answering questions.

This may sound counterintuitive but stick with us here. The best design is the one you don’t notice. Graphic design is not about creating appealing images; it is about solving problems. If it wasn’t for solving problems, the whole purpose of graphic design would be defeated.

Let’s look at a simple example to explain this. We post these fantastic-looking buttons on our website. They have slick motion designs and gorgeous colors. But we got so busy with the looks, we forgot to actually insert a link and make them clickable, defeating their whole purpose. Whoops!

Good design intertwines closely with user experience. Therefore, the cost of bad design is frustrated users and a damaged brand name. And any business knows that is a high price to pay.

Before we dive deeper into what makes a good design, we’ll take a brief journey through the history of visual communication.

A brief history of visual communication

Communicating through visuals goes way, way back. Now, the term graphic design wasn’t coined until the 1900s. However, visual communication can be seen as the founder of graphic design.

It’s all in the definition. When defining graphic design as a form of visual communication transferring knowledge, it’s said right there.

To determine good graphic design, it’s important to understand the concept. This brief history lesson will help with that. And hey, who knows. You may just get a spark of inspiration for your next design project!

Cave paintings

cave paintings.png Source: Reasons

Told you we’d go way, way back. Visual communication has been used since the Late Stone Age, around 38,000 BCE. The first signs trace back to cave paintings that simultaneously compile the earliest findings of human intelligence.

Things weren’t about selling their fellow village men the newest crop type, though. These clever guys drew their hunting techniques to transfer their knowledge from one generation to another.

The dawn of a visual language

mesopotamia visual language.png Source: Gavin.Collins/Wikimedia Commons

We take a leap in time to look at the first visual representation of language. The first known form of written language is known as Sumerian. It appeared almost 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, the area presently known as Iraq.

Sumerians laid the groundwork for civilization as we know it today. Their form of written language consisted mainly of symbols representing objects.

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Only a couple of hundred years later, Egyptian Hieroglyphics added their form of written language to the mix. They used pictograms of objects to construct sentences resembling similar visuals as cave paintings.

The invention of printing

printing china.png Credit: SmithsonianMag

On to the biggest invention that shaped graphic design into what it is today: printing. Without it, communicating with other generations or languages would be a problem. But because of an invention from the Chinese empire, we luckily don’t have to worry about that.

Picture this: we’re in China. In the 6th century, during the Tang dynasty, to be more precise. Wooden matrices were engraved, inked, and then pressed onto silk and later on paper. And there you have it; the invention of printing.

The title of the oldest-known printed book goes to The Diamond Sutra. It dates back to 868 AD but remained hidden for nearly a thousand years. A Hungarian-British explorer found the dated book in Dunhuang, China.

The Diamond Sutra was created with a method known as block printing. Buddhist monks utilized panels of hand-carved woodblocks to transfer ink onto paper. It may not be the first block-printed book, but it is the first to contain information on when and why it was published.

Gutenberg

printing gutenberg.png Source: Johannes Gutenberg/Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Gutenberg may not have invented print, but he deserves an honorable mention. Movable-type printing emerged in China in 1041. But it was subjective to breakage, being made with fragile materials. It was German inventor Johannes Gutenberg who developed a more robust type.

His innovation used a casting system and metal alloys, making production more accessible. After a year of experimenting, he printed what is now known as the Gutenberg Bible. The “forty-two-line” Bible was published on February 23rd, 1455, with a print run of 180 copies.

Evolution of graphic design during the industrial revolution

industrial revolution.png Source: Poltoon Press

Ah, the industrial revolution. Bearer of lots of changes to the world as we know it. Like Lithography, a then-new printing method involved inking a design into a stone and transferring it onto a sheet of paper.

The Industrial Revolution took place somewhere between 1760 and 1840. During this period, new technologies to increase efficiency and production of manufacturing processes emerged rapidly. Luckily, printing joined the party and became much more efficient .

The first graphic design agency

first graphic design agency.png Source: Smashing Magazine

The first-ever graphic design agency, The Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), was established in 1903 in Vienna, Austria. This joint collective came from graphic designer and painter Koloman Moser, architect Josef Hoffmann and patron Fritz Waerndorfer.

Being the first organization dedicated to the production of decorative arts, they were pioneers in the development of modernism. The Wiener Werkstätte produced designs for nearly 30 years. Therefore, it’s one of the longest-lived design movements of the twentieth century.

The term graphic design

william dwiggins.png Photograph by Robert Yarnall Richie. Collection of the Boston Public Library.

New technologies and new commercial possibilities led to the birth of graphic design as a profession. Advertising agencies, magazines, and book publishers all needed someone to take care of their visual elements.

It was William A. Dwiggins, a typographer, who identified this emerging field in 1922 with the term graphic design.

Key movements that influenced graphic design

With a better understanding of how graphic design came to exist, let’s look at its more recent developments. Up next, we have artistic movements that heavily influenced graphic design as we know it now.

Art Nouveau

Flourishing from the 1880s until the First World War, Art Nouveau sought to revive design and abolish 19th-century styles. Distinctive characteristics are organic and asymmetrical linework and good workmanship.

Bauhaus

Bauhaus began in 1919 in Germany. The Bauhaus school, founded by Walter Gropius, encouraged artists and designers to go back to basics. Bauhaus distinguishes through minimalism, simple typography, and geometric shapes.

Art Deco

Visualizing the decadent lifestyles from the 1930s, Art Deco is all about elegance and sophistication. You can recognize Art Deco by its simple shapes and expensive materials.

Swiss Design

What started as a functional and universal movement in Russia, the Netherlands, and Germany, further developed in Switzerland in the 1950s. The clean, minimalistic design from big tech giants today? Those were heavily influenced by Swiss Design.

Pop Art

Glorifying popular culture, pop art began as a somewhat rebellious movement against the traditional view of art. Bold colors dominate pop art design, as well as irony and satire.

Postmodernism

Where modernists valued clarity and simplicity, postmodernism was a reaction against the whole “form follows function.” During this movement, designers began creating freely. Therefore, you can recognize this style by its distortion and vibrant colors.

The digital age

With digital tools came a new and revolutionary way of creating designs. The digital age unleashed a wide range of possibilities in design, such as interactivity.

Graphic design today

busy street.jpg Credit: Anthony Rosset on Unsplash

That was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the almighty history of graphic design. We’ll save the rest for another time! Fast forward to today, and graphic design is everywhere.

The growing importance of graphic design has also increased recognition. There are countless graphic design awards up for grabs for exceptional design in this day and age. As a graphic designer, winning a design award can give you a tremendous boost, drawing in a global audience.

The importance of good design is growing by the minute, with globalization and our growing access to products and services. If you’re trying to grab your audience’s attention, you’re easily competing with 100 others. Therefore, good design versus best design can make or break you as a company.

The future of graphic design

Now that we had a quick overview of the history of graphic design and graphic design as we know it today, let’s see what the future holds.

We are no fortune tellers, but we suspect a few exciting developments will have a massive impact on graphic design as we know it.

Augmented reality

An exciting development for graphic designers themselves is augmented reality. Not only does this broaden the options of conveying an idea. It also may just mean the end of being deskbound and the beginning of designing while on the go.

3D

Flat design, move over! There is a new sheriff in town, and it so far has at least one dimension more. Instead of a two-dimensional web page, imagine the possibilities if it were in 3D.

Artificial Intelligence

In 2015, a mere 10% of companies across the globe used Artificial Intelligence. In 2019, the number rose to 37%. And there is a good chance it will only keep growing. What does that mean in the graphic design field? Well, robots being able to whip up a design process. Luckily for human designers, creativity is a human-only trait.

We can confidently say that graphic design is here to stay. If anything, it will continue to grow in importance and different ways of usage. Technology is developing into new and exciting things, and graphic design, as always, follows suit.

Modern understanding of graphic design

To create good design, you need to become a good graphic designer first. Familiarizing yourself with the basics is the best way to start. Let’s look at the elements and principles of graphic design to better understand modern graphic design.

Graphic elements

Graphic elements are all pretty self-explanatory. Using one or more of these elements, in conjunction or opposition to each other, will be the fundamentals of developing designs. These are the elements that graphic design consist of:

  • Color
  • Form
  • Line
  • Shape
  • Size
  • Space
  • Texture

Graphic design principles

It isn’t until the basic design principles are put to play that things get interesting. Throw in the proper usage, and you’ve got yourself a visually striking design. We’ll go over each principle one by one to create an understanding of what each principle means.

Balance

Like the concept of balance in physics, balance in design provides structure and stability. Examples of applying balance to a design include the distribution of visual aspects and the usage of different colors.

Contrast

Contrast is the principle used to make one element stand out from the other. Whether it’s in size, color, or positioning, using contrast is the way to go if you want an attention-grabbing design.

Repetition and Rhythm

There is truth to the saying “all good things come in threes,” even in design. Repetition and rhythm in a design give us a sense of familiarity, which helps with association. It gives a sense of consistency and organization, which appeals. Ultimately, we are simple creatures of habit.

Alignment

A design usually consists of different elements on display. Proper alignment can help to create order and organization between them. Additionally, alignment can help create visual connections between the elements.

Proximity

Connecting each element with each other is the principle of proximity. Creating a nice overview of things will positively affect the user experience. Sure, each element serves its own purpose. But tying them together declutters the design and creates relationships between elements.

Hierarchy Hierarchy serves to show dominance and priority to certain elements in a design. Making the title big and bold is a simple example of how to use this principle.

Now, of course, we appreciate a little rule break and some out-of-the-box thinking as much as anyone. But before you start to rebel a bit, it’s important to understand these principles. Once you do, only then can you make a conscious decision to go against them.

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Types of graphic design

After familiarizing yourself with the basics, it’s time to get to know the different types of design. There are thousands of ways to communicate your ideas and get your message across since there are many different types of design.

More often than not, they overlap. And yet, each of them requires a specific set of skills and techniques.

Some graphic design services focus solely on one type of design, and others are more like a jack of all trades. Then there are the inbetweeners who developed their skills based on related designs and those who developed a signature style within a style.

To find the graphic design service that matches your design needs, it’s crucial to know the different types of graphic design. Let’s take a look.

Visual identity graphic design

Identity is not only important to us humans. It is also crucial for brands and enterprises. After all, we recognize based on visuals. So how can you stand out from the crowd if you don’t have something for your audience to look at?

Each brand has a set of graphic elements that create its visual identity. Visual identity graphic design is precisely that: the visual elements that act as the face of the brand.

A brand can communicate its personality in numerous ways. Have you ever noticed that health-related brands often use similar colors to express themselves? Or that high-end hotels use an indistinguishable font for their logo?

A brand’s identity consists of many visual aspects, such as its name, logo, color palette, and typography. But it goes even further than that. Shapes and patterns, the consistent style of graphics all contribute to the way the brand is perceived.

Marketing and advertising graphic design

The promotion of products or services is impossible without graphic design. All forms of marketing, whether traditional or digital, rely on graphics.

The graphic landscape in marketing and advertising is vast and ever-expanding. There are numerous ways to connect with your consumer, from good old print to digital. And with technology developing rapidly, the options are only increasing.

Is the main purpose of your design to promote or sell a product or a service? Then you should hire a designer that specializes in marketing and advertising graphic design.

User interface graphic design

When graphic designers develop the look and feel of any device or application, they are creating the user interface (UI) design. This process is what makes a device or application easy to use.

Buttons placed a certain way, a picture that breaks up text; everything used when utilizing the platform or app is part of the user interface.

A user-friendly experience is crucial to keep your consumers happy. An illogical user interface can result in frustrated users, which can damage your brand’s reputation.

If you’re creating an application, website, or device, then using a specialized graphic designer to create the user interface is wise. It can mean the difference between a user-friendly experience and a not-so-friendly one, after all.

Editorial graphic design

Another subset of graphic design is editorial graphic design. This refers to designing both print and digital versions of newspapers, magazines, and books. Getting a written message across is a delicate art, best left to the professionals.

Editorial graphic design is the oldest form of graphic design since it dates back to the beginning of writing itself.

An editorial designer has a lot to consider when it comes to the design process. The layout, the imagery, and the typography, to name a few.

If they deliver good design, their design has the power to draw a reader in. However, if they deliver the best graphic design ever, their design keeps the reader interested throughout the publication.

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Product and packaging graphic design

Product and packaging graphic design refers to the exterior of a product and its packaging. This has become an increasingly important aspect, with the growing offer of products.

You’ve got your fundamental aspects to consider when designing product packaging, like color and font. But there is also a different aspect that comes into play; material.

Is your box going to be from plastic, aluminum, paper, or something entirely different? And if you pick paper, which kind?

The look and feel of the packaging are essential to persuade people into buying your product. But it also affects the practicalities of your product. When designing packaging for a beverage, you want the vessel it comes in to be easy to hold, for example.

Motion graphic design

Graphic design in the context of filmmaking or video production is what we call motion graphic design. The first motion design existed in the form of presentation flip-books. But today, we have a much wider array available.

Not to be confused with animation, motion graphic design is mainly associated with setting abstract objects in motion. Think about the opening credits in your favorite series and data visualizations during a news segment. That is not to say that motion graphics are not animated, but it does serve a different purpose than animation.

The user experience goes hand-in-hand with motion graphic design. That is because the visual movement of certain aspects can help with a user-friendly experience. Additionally, motion design can help create a realistic prototype of a product.

Environmental graphic design

This field of graphic design is an interesting one since it operates in a mish-mash of multiple disciplines coming together. Their main objective? To create a functional and aesthetically pleasing environment.

Environmental graphic design is exciting and diverse, which at the same time makes it difficult to narrow down.

Any space you can think of has the opportunity to implement environmental graphic design or EGD in short. The numbers on apartment complexes, the logo on the outside of a restaurant, we could go on and on.

Environmental graphic design has the power to enhance a spatial experience. Therefore, it is often used in spaces where visitors need a sense of place and direction. Think about a courthouse or a big office building.

It has also become increasingly popular in consumer-oriented spaces, like shops and restaurants. Examples are wall and floor graphics or window films. EGD can help grab visitors’ attention and create a user-friendly experience in any type of space.

And many more

There are many different types of graphic design services, depending on how much you want to get into the nitty-gritty of things.

A production design decides how a stage for a specific concert should look. There is video game design that thinks about what the landscape of a game should look like. And there are many more types.

All types serve their purpose in the world of design. To find the best graphic design for your project, it is vital to determine what you are trying to accomplish.

Good design versus bad design

Did you know that spotting bad design is actually much easier than spotting good design? The aesthetics of design and your opinion about it may be subjective. But a design not serving its purpose is anything but subjective.

A company’s name that you misread in a logo is an instant giveaway, for example. A website that gives you anything but the information you were looking for. Or even worse, icons that are so confusing you don’t know where to click and eventually just give up.

Bad design can be an information overload, ignoring usability, a confusing interface, or all of the above. One thing is for sure; it results in frustrated consumers, the single most important thing a business does not want.

Examining bad design

Scrutinizing worst practices may just be your golden ticket towards a good design. It is great if you know what you should do. But it definitely helps to know what you shouldn’t. Here are a few ways how:

Ask your worst critics to spill the beans.

Their harsh feedback may just give you that missing piece of your design puzzle. Give people an incentive to write a testimonial or share their thoughts directly. Go through them and take notes because this is where you’ll learn what doesn’t work.

Use the product you are finding a new design for, exclusively and excessively.

Because some flaws may only show up after excessive usage. Also known as “dogfooding”, using your own product is a way to step into your customer’s shoes. Additionally, you can nip flaws in the bud before angry mobs plummet your rating average.

Go on a deep dive Googling “bad design [insert your field of operation]”

A little spying on the competition never hurt anybody. And between the three options, this is by far the kindest one to your ego. At the end of the day, we all make mistakes. It’s how you deal with them that is important.

How to find good design

Finding design has become a simple task that anyone can do in a split second. Just Google ‘website template’ or ‘logo design.’ But with this growing offer of free design, it has become increasingly harder to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In other words, finding a good design isn’t easy. But luckily for you, we’re here to help. You can take a few steps on your quest for good design.

Steps towards finding good design

  • Design brief - First things first, it is crucial to develop a design brief. This document defines the main details of your design project. Think about including the goal and objective of the design, your target audience, your budget, and your expectations. The clearer your design brief, the better.
  • Pairing up with a designer - Once you know exactly what you want, it’s time to pair up with a professional. Find a graphic designer that specializes in your design needs, and you’re golden.
  • Set preferences & expectations - Once you find your match and are ready to start collaborating with your designer, it’s time to set your preferences & expectations. How often do you want to receive an update? How many revisions does your designer’s fee include? These are all examples of questions that are better to answer beforehand.
  • Stay involved - At the end of the day, you are the client and know what you want. Therefore, it’s crucial to stay involved throughout the design process. Clear instructions and constructive feedback will help you avoid a final design that isn’t to your liking.

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What makes a good design good?

We’ve come full circle back to our initial question. We dove into the history of design. Brushed up on our knowledge and went over the different types of graphic design. Time for the grand finale and a concise answer to our big question: what is good design?

The 10 design principles of Dieter Rams are a great first step towards determining if the design is good. Additionally, it’s good to get a basic sense of the design elements and principles.

You can study design for hours on end, but eventually, only one thing matters. And that is the purpose of your design. A clear purpose blended up with knowledge and field research is what will lead towards good design.

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Guest Writer: Simone Timmers

February 11, 2022

Simone is a writer, dividing her time between native Netherlands and 'home away from home' Malawi. Whenever not stringing words together, she's either on her yoga mat or exploring any off the beaten track she can find.