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?
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). So good design needs to be functional and attractive.
Functional and attractive
The functionality of your design is quickly visible. Your design 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 on 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
Following are some basic design 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 your mind, go to your layout and eliminate everything that’s not necessary. For example more than 3 colors, more than two fonts, design elements which don’t transport any message at all.
Every design 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
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.
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 colors choice or size. It helps people to distinguish between more and less important elements.
Related post: How to create visual hierarchy
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
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 balance the design. It also makes it easier for people to orient themselves on different points in your design and to memorize it.