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The basics of good design

June 28, 2016

In my last post, I explained the 10 Most Used Design Terms including typography, branding, and layout terms. But when it comes to creating visuals, what actually makes a good design? And how to distinguish it from bad design?

What’s a good design

Good design has two important aspects: it pleases the eye and it serves a purpose. The second aspect is easy to make out. Let me give you an example: you get a flyer for an event. The flyer tells you what the event is about when it takes place and where. You get all the information you need, so the second goal of serving a purpose is accomplished.

But what actually makes you want to go to this event? Here the first aspect comes into play. And that’s where it gets a bit difficult. The design must be visually pleasing to trigger an emotion (looks like fun), which in turn triggers an action (you go to the event). This means good design needs to be functional and attractive.What makes a good design and how to distinguish it from bad design? Learn more about the 9 design rules all professional designers use | thatistheday.com #brandstyling #graphicdesign #designtips

Good design is functional and attractive

The functionality of your design is quickly visible. It must be easy to understand and use. That’s it.  Attractiveness, on the other hand, is something you can hardly define because people respond to design in different ways. What pleases one, doesn’t please all.

It’s even more difficult today with the immense flood of design we are confronted with all around us. Design is everywhere from the package design of your milk carton to the smartphone advertisement at the bus station. With free design software available online everybody can create their own stuff today.

Everybody is a designer

And don’t get me wrong, I love that it is so easy today and people have access to all those free design tools online. I wish this had been possible when I started out and didn’t have the money to buy a professional program like Photoshop. But, and this has always been the same (free tools available or not) putting something together and creating a real design, are a different pair of shoes.

As designers, we know and implement some basic rules in our designs. We learn these rules in school and it often takes years of practice to apply these rules with perfection.


9 basic rules for good design

The following are some basic rules. Start to use them yourself and you’ll instantly improve your design.


Keep it simple, stupid. This must be your first and most important aim. Never overwhelm people with your design. Your message is better transported through simple design. You will often hear “less is more”. With this in mind, go to your layout and eliminate everything that’s not necessary. For example more than 3 colors, more than two fonts, and other elements that don’t transport any message at all.

Every element needs to serve a purpose. Ask yourself if you need the element to understand the design. This leads us directly to the next rule.

Related post: Design principle: KISS

White space

Actually, it should be written like this: WHITE SPACE! Not every tiny space needs to be filled in your layout. Leave some space for your elements to breathe. This makes the important stuff stand out.

White space describes the space inside your design which holds no information. It doesn’t necessarily have to be white. Solid color background can do as well or even a photo. Using whitespace doesn’t automatically mean boring. Good design lives from giving elements enough space.

Related post: Why white space is important in design


Rule of thirds

Put a grid over your layout, if actually in your layout program or in your mind’s eye. This will help you to place the elements of your design in the right.

The grid consists of 9 fields. Intersections, where horizontal and vertical lines meet, are main-focusing points. Put your most important elements on these points. Extra tip: when it comes to aligning elements in general, the designer always looks for invisible lines. Take a look at the example beneath.


rule of thirds

Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio can help you with proportions in your design. A ratio of 1:1.618 is usually found pleasing because it is a ratio we find in nature e.g. in body structure. Place your main element by applying this rule.

To simplify, if you would normally put your element in the center of your canvas, place it a little bit higher. I’ve rarely seen somebody calculate the exact ratio.

Related post: What is the golden ratio?


Usually, when we have a page in front of us, our eye moves over it in a Z-movement. Moving from the top-left to the right and to the bottom left and right. Place your element in the right space depending on its importance. With titles, headlines and graphic elements, you can lead the beholder, starting with the most important in the top-left corner.


Another way to create hierarchy is through contrast. You can create contrast in different ways e.g. through color choice or size. It helps people to distinguish between more and less important elements.

Related post: How to create visual hierarchy

Creative fonts

Be careful when using creative fonts. Out of the simple reason that they’re difficult to read. You can use them for headlines but not for the main text. This reminds me of one of my personal rules: Never ever use Comic Sans! It’s personal taste though.

A general rule here is, if you have more than 3 lines of text don’t use a creative or script font.

Related post: 10 classic fonts you should know

Scale proportionally

Stick to the proportions of your image. If you need to resize, always do this proportionate. A mistake I see many beginners make is stretching their photos to make them fit. Forcing something into place doesn’t work though. You’ll have to cut. Try to cut in a way, nothing important will be taken away.

Related post: How to resize images in Photoshop


Designers repeat elements throughout their design to make it look more cohesive. This can be anything from fonts over colors to patterns or shapes. Repeating elements like these help you to create balance. It also makes it easier for people to orient themselves on different points in your design and to memorize it.










Leave a Reply

19 responses to “The basics of good design

  1. haris satriyawqn

    I am very interested in the graphic design field. I always think, how a design is good. 2 points are always my consideration, which is to have character and be good at choosing colors. with all humility, I just want to share. just a point of view. I really appreciate this post. Thank you very much. Best regards

    • Sandra @thatistheday

      Thanks for sharing your opinion. You’re right. The choice of colors is a very important attribute of good design.

  2. Spike

    Just retired from 60+ years of professional design. Excellent summation of basics… except that extraneous, “rule of thirds.”It is just not applicable to many forced formats such as packaging. Drop it. Your alignment sample is far more important. I would add #10, that breaking the rules with a disturbing element will call inordinate (desired) attention to it.

    • Sandra @thatistheday

      Thanks for your input. You’re making a good point with #10, for every rule there’s always a reason to break it e. g. to make an element stand out.

  3. Raghu

    Namaste Madam, I am from India. I am not going to any designing school but I keep learning by practicing…. Practicing. Thanks for beautiful tips.

  4. Gloria

    Thanks so much Sandra. I did a course on this many many years ago, your rules have bought it all back. Thank you.

  5. Manoj

    Learned new thing about Comic San and benefits of irregular objects. Thanks Jean and Sandra

  6. Jean

    Though it may look unprofessional, the one very good reason to use comic sans is if your audience is dyslexic. Aside from those fonts designed specifically for dyslexia, it is one of the easiest for dyslexics to read.

    • Sandra @thatistheday

      Wow, I didn’t know this. That’s of course a good reason to use Comic Sans. Thanks for letting me know.