Note: I actually wrote this article on September 30, 2009 and it has sat as a draft post for the past 2 years. I never had enough conviction in my words to hit the “publish” button, and it became one of the many things I in my life that I had forgotten. However I re-read it today and not only did I realize I liked what I said, but I actually think others might like it too! Enjoy.
I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about what good design really is. When I was younger, I used to think it consisted of wild colors, torn edges, and similar aesthetics that sat well with my rebellious spirit and unrefined visual palette. But as I have grown older, more experienced, and become (somewhat) more of a conformist, I thought it was time to re-examine the question in a different light.
I am not going to attempt to answer what style of design is “good,” but rather what elements of any design make it good. I am using web design as an example, but I feel that these points are applicable to any form of design be it print, web, television, etc… I realize design is meant to be seen and experienced, not written about, so I’m hoping my words don’t fall upon deaf ears. Anyway, here goes…
Good design solves problems
Or maybe I should rephrase that to say all design solves problems. At least all of the design that I do. In designing a website, what I am actually doing is solving a problem of information organization and presentation. When a client supplies me with pages of text and dozens of photos, it is my job to take all of this information and present it in both an intuitive and aesthetically pleasing way. I need to make this information both usable and stylish. It’s a lot easier said than done, and believe me, when you visit a website that doesn’t effectively address this problem it is painfully obvious!
Good design is well researched
Part of creating a good design is knowing your target market and learning from others who have come before you. The first thing I do when beginning a website design project is to go online and see what’s already out there. Not only does this inform my design process and help me tailor my visuals towards a more refined audience, but it also helps me avoid the pitfalls may have otherwise gotten me stuck. There is a difference between researching other websites and copying other websites. The idea is to figure out what works and apply it to your own unique case example. Nobody likes a copycat. Ever.
Good design is easy (for the people who use it)
I don’t mean to say that good design is easy to create, but that good design is easy to view. With a good design, anyone who looks at your website will be able to easily scan its contents and come to an understanding of what it’s about… all in less than 10 seconds. Attention spans are particularly short on the web, and your visitors should not have to “work” to figure out what you website is about or how it functions. Put another way, good design does not establish a barrier between your visitors and your content, but instead breaks that barrier down. (Note: Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think is a great book that covers this idea in more detail.)
Good design takes advantage of the presentation medium
There is a reason why websites don’t translate on paper very well. It’s because they were created to be viewed on a computer screen! Well designed websites use the presentation medium of the web and a computer monitor to their advantage. They incorporate hyperlinks, subtle rollover effects and yes, maybe even a touch of animation where appropriate. Unlike a newspaper or printed magazine, these are enhancements that are unique to the web. When done well, they not only improve the design, but also the overall user experience. However do not take this as my official endorsement of crazy animated .gifs and wacky flash animations. There is often a temptation to go overboard, but the key to good design is knowing when to say when.
Good design is visually unified
A well designed website has a cohesive feel that pervades every page from top to bottom. No matter what page of the website you are on, it is obvious that you are browsing the same site. I’ve gotten many requests saying “Let’s make each page different!” in the past. I understand where these requests are coming from, and I agree that it’s important to make a website look and feel exciting. A subtle difference from page to page is a good idea because it creates an additional point of interest, but every website needs a unifying theme that ties all pages together. Why? Because users shouldn’t have to suffer the confusion of wondering what website they land on each time they click a link on your site!
Good design is timeless
Trends in design will always come and go, but the best designs will stand the test of time. On the web these trends move especially quickly, and it is not uncommon for the website of a major brand or corporation to undergo a redesign every year. These types of companies have the budget to play into the latest trends and redesign their websites the second they become even slightly stale. My clients, on the other hand, do not have this kind of capital at their disposal. When working on a website design, I draw upon tried and true design principals outside of the web world in order to make something that will look great even years from now. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that a nod to a current trend within the context of a well-thought-out design is a good thing, but it is important to base core structural design elements around ideas that are proven to work. Getting that right is part of my design research (see point #2).
Good design may go unnoticed
All too often, good design doesn’t get the credit it deserves simply because there is nothing wrong with it! Its human nature for us to focus on the negatives, and take the positives (like unobtrusive, easy-to-navigate design) for granted. If good design doesn’t make you think, then it should come as no surprise that good design also goes unnoticed. Going unnoticed in this case is probably not a bad thing.
Good design looks good (or great, or even awesome)
This one is self-explanatory. Good design looks good. Maybe it even looks cool and exciting. That would (in most cases) be extra-good. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I think good design is boring or overly simplistic because it shouldn’t be. There are plenty of ways to make awesome, exciting designs that encompass all of the ideas I have laid out here.
In the end, there are no rules to design. Design is intrinsically a subjective process, and what I view as a great design may not be considered so amazing by others. The points I have made represent what I think goes into great design, but it is just a starting point and by no means a comprehensive list. If you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said, let me hear it in the comments!