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What Makes a Design Good?

The office needed some new furniture, so Kristen and I went shopping.  We tend to prefer the antiquated to the contemporary so we went to a couple of our favorite antique stores.  That's when we saw it.  A hot pink (like burn-your-retina-hot pink) chair with a vibrant pineapple carved into the back.  And, guess what!  It was part of a set—table and all!  It was perhaps the most overwhelming thing I've ever seen in my entire life.  But, was it bad design?

On occasion clients will tell me some sites that they love, and some sites that they hate.  Every now and then, we designed a site in both of the sets.  That's ok, though.  It's important to remember that there is a significant difference between bad design and design you don't like.  This is often difficult to explain.  Just because one doesn't prefer a style of art, doesn't mean that style is bad.  (There are good and bad works within that style.)  Just because one doesn't like Motown or Madeira doesn't mean that it's bad music or bad wine.

Perhaps the best way to explain taste is with ... well ... taste.  I've mentioned this before.  If you don't like onions, that doesn't mean that every dish with onions is bad.  It just means that you don't like it.  Onions can be prepared poorly, and they can be prepared really well.  If you don't like onions though, you're still not going to like a well prepared onion.  So how does one determine if the dish is good/bad or just preferable/not?  Well, for starters, if you are preparing an onion, it had better taste, smell and feel like an onion!

What Makes a Design Good

The same is true with design.  There are good and bad designs within a particular style.  Good designs tend to make use of certain design standards.  Poor designs tend to ignore them.  I'm going to talk a little bit about just five of them.  (I don't have time for much more than that.)


  • Good design tends to make use of lines.  Lines (even when they aren't drawn out) take your eye from one place to another.  Sometimes it does so in a straight (or linear fashion).  Sometimes it does so in a roundabout (or curved) way.  This can be very helpful when making a particular element stand out or sort of fade into the background.
  • Poor design tends to ignore lines.  It pays no attention to where your eyes might track.  It just puts stuff out there with little regard to how it is laid out.


  • Good design tends to make use of color and color combinations.  We've talked a bit about how color has many effects, and good design knows how to harness those effects and evocations.  It knows when to use loud and garish colors and when to use soft and muted ones.
  • Poor design tends to not notice that some colors just don't look good together.  It tends to not understand shades and highlights, contrast or compliments.  Sometimes poor design makes you wish you were colorblind.


  • Good design tends to make use of shapes.  Not everything is a shape.  We'll, that's kind of not true, but not everything is the same kind of shape.  In addition to your geometric shapes, there are natural shapes (shapes that look like their real-life silhouettes) and abstracted shapes (shapes that merely represent their real-life counterparts).  Good design knows when and how to use each kind of shape.
  • Poor design tends to use no shapes or use shapes inappropriately.  The worse of all is when poor design uses shapes for one thing and accidentally gives the illusion of something totally different.  (Don't get me wrong, some people will see what they want to see in a Rorschach test, but sometimes the designer just wasn't paying attention.)


  • Good design tends to size elements appropriately.  Size is not only important for giving interest and preponderance to an element, but it also helps establish balance (along with the next standard as well).  Clients tend to want their logo as big as the moon because it is so important, but if it topples the design, you have accomplished nothing.  Good design knows how to keep all of this in check.
  • Poor design tends to size things at random or (at least) with no regard to the overall work.


  • Good design tends to make good use of space—especially negative space.  Design elements need elbow room and head room.  They've got to have some space.  Good design understands how to make use of this.  It knows how to leave something blank.  It also know how to "violate" that space appropriately.  Some of my favorite designs run clear off the page!
  • Poor design has no boundaries.  It tends to shove things together and busy up a space rather than letting the elements breathe a bit.  Poor design crams stuff into an overnight bag rather than displaying them nicely or even packing them well.

Back to the Basics

One thing that is hard to specify is teleology.  It's not really a design element, but an over all completion of all of the elements.  It essentially asks, "Did the design accomplish its intended goal?"  Good design tends to do this for its intended audience.  Poor design tends to only do this for the designer.

The pink pineapple chair had nice lines that lead the eyes to the appropriately sized, iconic shape spaced dead center in the chair back.  The color (almost literally) screamed 1950's tropics and made me think of Sunny from Knick Knack.  It was a well made chair that could likely have held up our clients for years to come.  Despite its good design, it was not the design for us.  We decided to go with something that fit our tastes a little better.

Moral of the Story

The lesson here can be lost because it's actually a contrary one.  The lesson is this: Insist on good design, not bad design that you happen to like.