News and Insights

Good Design

An Excerpt from “Pencil to Mouse, Forty Years of Graphic Design” by Kerry Grady

What is good design? This is the question that has haunted the design community for decades. Whenever the conversation comes up, the eye of the beholder argument shuts it down. One might say that good design is design that works, and another might say that the arbiter of good design is the user. At this point, both nod and the conversation ends but the question is never fully put to rest. I believe there is a more universal answer. It’s this: Good design does not depend so much on the eye of the beholder but on a combination of aesthetics and ethics. Good design exhibits virtues – good, old-fashioned virtues like generosity, courage, diligence, honesty, substance, clarity, curiosity, thriftiness and wit. By contrast, bad design exhibits human vices like selfishness, fear, laziness, deceit, pettiness, confusion, apathy, wastefulness and stupidity. In other words, we want the same things from design that we want from people.

Design done well, requires that the designer is present, and yet, invisible. When we combine ethical virtues with aesthetic virtues, we get good design. The ancient Greeks frame the ideal in the context of knowing, making, and doing; to know truth, to make beauty, to do good. Bad design is smoke, while good design is a mirror. Apple’s Steve Jobs said it this way: “Design is the soul of a man-made creation”. Soul, like beauty is one of those evanescent qualities that disappears under the microscope but it’s clearly visible when you meet it on the street. It’s a quality that’s missing in today’s business tradition that overvalues narrow short-term success and undervalues broad long-term success.

Poster, Armin Hofmann / Lennon Poster, Richard Avedon / Poster, Josef Müller-Brockmann

Design is not merely a matter of “taste”; it’s an understanding of the problem. Does it (the solution) fullfill the problem? Will it capture attention? Will is sustain interest? If the solution does not incorporate these criteria, then it doesn’t work. It’s really as simple as that. Although graphic design is not necessarily an art, it is even less a science. In the end, there is only one universal test, “does it work?”, and only one universal principlal: “could it have been better?”

Design should never say “look at me.” It should say “look at this.” Good design is not the result of luck, circumstance, or a “good” client. It is not reliant on the number of colors or the size of the budget. Good design is the result of a designer’s knowledge, discipline, skill and imagination. There are examples of good design everywhere: products, packaging, logos, websites, books, posters, signage and advertisements. Problem solving is not a restrictive act, but a liberating one. The best designers understand that working within the constraints of the problem can often lead to the greatest freedom and creativity. It is never my primary objective to design things that are unique or novel; only that they be effective, attractive, lasting, and memorable.

Thomas Watson, Jr., the former President of IBM said “Good design is good business.” As markets become increasing competitive, good design is a key differentiator. Good design doesn’t mean “more expensive”. To the contrary, good design lasts longer, is appreciated longer, and often is less expensive as compared to trendy, complicated, over-priced design. I understand why most clients, and why most people for that matter, are not interested in understanding the value of good design. It’s natural to take a shortcut if it means an immediate payoff. But good design is proven to pay greater dividends overtime. Besides, we should all care to improve our world, shouldn’t we? And, design is a way to do that.

Design judgments are based on two kinds of values: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic values are those most of us use but often confuse with intrinsic ones. Extrinsic values are largely subjective and have little or nothing to do with design. Judgments are most often based on habit, opinion, prejudice, misunderstanding, conditioned learning on social, political, financial or religious preferences. To a visually unsophisticated person, for example, a bad copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper seems no different from the original painting. Their concern is piety, not art. Intrinsic values involve aesthetics, form and visual quality—but not what it represents. Intrinsic judgments relate to content and meaning, which is more difficult to comprehend because talent, expertise, taste, sensitivity, experience and visual acuity come into play. What is meant by beauty in this case is about fidelity to form.

Design is a powerful thing. An image, a word, a logo, has the power to change the mind and to affect one’s emotions. Design can be transformative to how a person reacts, remembers and responds to information. An important part of design is to inform, not persuade. Design is a responsibility. To design well, is a given. There is scarcely anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The measure of how good something is should never be determined by its cost, its designer, its origin, or its perceived value by others.

CBS Logo, William Golden / United Airlines Logo, Saul Bass

There is no formula for good design. Each design problem is unique as is each solution. Furthermore, the world of design is not utopian; solutions are often arbitrary or the product of endless compromise. Design is the fusion of form and content, the unique expression of an idea. Design entails a part-whole relationship expressed in the terms of space, contrast, balance, proportion, pattern, scale, shape, color, value, texture and weight. These are the means: unity, harmony, grace and rhythm – and desirable ends. However, these very considerations are what ultimately distinguish good design from bad design.

Quality design depends on the skilled interaction of all of these elements. Since such ingredients are inexhaustible, perfection is rarely attainable. Implicit in all these are inventiveness, intuition, skills, and experience. Too often, designers skip the important steps of research and study before jumping into designing. To ignore the past is irresponsible. To indulge in one’s creativity without acknowledging the source of inspiration is opportunistic, at best. As a teacher, mentor and judge, I have known students and designers who thought that the work they created was new, when it was actually pulled from the past. When I’d make that point, I would often add that if they wanted to see it done well, that they should go to the source. Most of them didn’t know what I was talking about, and only a few would take action.

To get a full copy of “Pencil to Mouse, Forty Years of Graphic Design” by Kerry Grady, follow the link

Thumbnail image used is Massimo Vignelli’s NYC Subway Map, 1972
Previous Post
The Best Job Until It Wasn’t
Next Post
Grady Campbell Announces The 2022 Elite 10 PE Firms in the Middle Market™