What does good graphic design look like?

2nd November 2021

Ask 50 people what constitutes “good graphic design” and you’ll get 50 different answers. Just like artwork and physical attraction, beauty often lies in the eye of the beholder. One person’s design aesthetic may be the polar opposite of another’s. 

Amanda likes crisp, clean lines and lots of open space on the page. Contrastingly, Mark tends to be drawn to rich, layered textures and complex illustrations. Jaden likes bold colours and provocative headlines, and Izzy likes earthy tones and sans serif fonts.  Ask these four individuals to critique an advertising design, and you’re unlikely to get a consensus.  

The act of labelling a design as “good” or “bad” will always include a degree of subjectivity. So, does that mean that good graphic design is always purely subjective? Not at all. There are several hallmarks of good design that both professional and novice designers alike tend to follow, though not always consciously. 

Balance & proportion

Have you ever seen four identically sized picture frames hung side by side on a wall, and one of them is slightly askew? You can’t help but want to reach out and adjust it, so it’s straight. The same is true with design composition. We tend to like things that feel in alignment, in proportion or that are balanced in some way. 

For example, say you have a large, colourful photo on the lower two-thirds of a landing page and just a few words in small font on a white background on the upper third of the page. This design just feels out of balance. Either the font size on top needs to be dramatically increased in size, or the background color has to be changed from white to a saturated color, or some texture and dimension need to be added to the upper third to visually balance out the photo on the bottom. 

Visual focus

Another aspect of good design is that it draws the viewer’s eyes to specific elements on the page. Now you might be thinking, “Well, I carefully chose every single word, image and graphic detail for a reason. I want them to see all of it, everything.”   

That is, indeed, the endgame, but every design is a story that unfolds. Think of the very first impression of the design as a single word, emotion or concept. Let’s say a design comes through your social media channel that includes an image of two human feet standing on top of an egg carton filled with eggs. The viewer’s initial subconscious thoughts might be things like, “confusion” or “curiosity” or “balance” or “feet” or “delicate.”  Those words and feelings all take shape in a split second. 

Next, if you’ve done it right, the viewer adds a little more detail to the story. Perhaps their eye gravitates to the headline on the page, “Does your spouse have you walking on eggshells?” 

Now you know there’s a relationship between the image and the headline and it has something to do with interpersonal relationships. 

Finally, and again, this is in the ideal world, the viewer’s eyes go to the fine print where they read about services available from a local therapist. Now they have the full story – this is an ad about psychotherapy for couples who are arguing. 

Good design helps naturally guide the reader’s eyes to the “right” places on a design first, knowing that the details may or may not follow, but that the main concept has elicited some sort of emotion or conveyed a message. 

Here’s a trick some designers use to see if they’ve hit the mark. Take a design and ask another person to take a fresh look at it. Very quickly, before they even have a chance to think about it, ask them where (or to what) on the design their eyes are first drawn (if any)?  

If your design is out of balance, the eye might go to the explanatory copy or a graphic embellishment first, rather than the main image. Sometimes that’s okay; it all depends on what you want to communicate and what you want to emphasize for the reader. 

Guiding the reader’s eyes can be accomplished by effective use of the space, as well as the proportions of the fonts and graphics. 

Consistency & symmetry

Much like balance and focus, consistency and symmetry (or lack thereof) can make or break a design. With consistency, the use of fonts becomes important. Non-designers sometimes make the mistake of using multiple different fonts thinking it creates more visual interest. You do want some variety, but you don’t want chaos.

For this reason, a Google display ad might use two font families – something bold for the headlines and maybe a sans serif for the body copy. Three or more fonts can be fine on larger designs, provided they are used as a consistent visual cue (e.g., here’s that font again which means I must be transitioning to a new sub-topic on this website).

Another aspect of consistency is the use of photos, illustrations, colours, textures and related graphics. If you’re using colour photos in a design, you may not want to use any illustrations. If you’re using high-tech-looking graphic elements, then don’t suddenly introduce clip art or script fonts. And, whatever your graphic choices are, always ask whether they are consistent with your brand, both in actual execution (i.e., corporate colours) and messaging. 

Likewise, the use of symmetry can create a design that’s more pleasing to the eye. Symmetry can express itself through subtle adjustments, such as making sure all the text is aligned to the same spot on the left or right margin, or that the spacing between lines on a page are consistent and in proportion to one another. Nothing is worse (okay, we’re exaggerating a little here) than seeing two headlines that are supposed to be exactly centered but one of them is slightly off-center.

The tip of the iceberg

Books have been written about what constitutes good design, but we think that focusing on the very basics of balance, focus and consistency is a great place to start. If you’re on the road to becoming a top-notch designer but would like the help of one of our talented designers, please reach out. We’d love to take your designs to the next level.

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