Design is a creative and visual medium, so by its very nature it must be subjective, right?
Non-designers usually have trouble expressing why they like or dislike a design, whether it be a deliverable from a hired designer, an advertisement on a billboard or a newly downloaded app. Meanwhile, there are times that designers are flooded with insecurities about their work; their inner voice questioning whether or not a design is ready for critique. That’s why it’s important to look at design as a holistic craft with certain elements that should check a box.
Note that the type of design I’m talking about here is design with a purpose: UX/UI design, web design, advertisement design, etc. This isn’t about high concept art or creative endeavours. This is about consumer facing design for businesses. Now, without further ado, here are some tips on how to tell if a design is objectively good.
The message is obvious
Look at the design. Ask yourself:
Does it serve the intended purpose? Is the information clear for a first time user? Or is it something only the designer behind the project would understand?
The design shouldn’t make a user think. It also shouldn’t try to educate the user.
In fact, there shouldn’t be any need to educate or explain to the user or audience what the design means. Everything should be transparent, visible and straightforward. Whether it’s a design for print, web or mobile, a first time user should be able to gather the intended message without experiencing adversity or confusion.
Tip for designers: If you’ve been working on something for a while, your brain can get fuzzy. You become so familiar with the design that it’s unclear whether or not it makes sense anymore. That’s why it’s useful to get a different set of eyes looking at the project. Ask fellow designers, friends and coworkers if the design has an obvious message and if the information is clear. A fresh perspective is super valuable when your own judgement is muddled by hours of work.
The most important content is prioritized
Design is not a decoration. It needs to deliver a message.
I’m not saying every design should be content heavy with an overwhelming amount of copy. However, if the design doesn’t highlight or emphasize the intended message, then it’s ineffective.
Consider the upside down pyramid below, which illustrates what elements should be given the most weight in a design. Up top is the critical information: features that are necessary in order for the design to make sense and communicate a message. Second is the background and complementary content: parts that add meaning to the critical information. Last on the pyramid is the nice-to-have material: details that accessorize the design, but add no real value.
The hierarchy exists because important information needs to be a priority — design only shines when the content is clear. If the design evidently subscribes to the pyramid’s principles, then you can be confident about its objective quality.
The design targets the end user
Who is the audience?
And by “audience”, what I’m really asking is — who is the end user? Think of the person that will be interacting with the design, and see if their values and lifestyle are being targeted. Reflect on their specific needs and what solves their problems.
For instance, If you’re building an app for kids, you need to think about what images, words and typography are appropriate. Instead of a CTA button saying “Submit”, it should say something more playful and kid friendly like “Let’s go!”. The key is to think about what kids expect to see or hear and be mindful of what they aren’t supposed to. Use language and terminology that is familiar to them and remember to maintain an appropriate tone of voice.
This thought process is part of user-centered design, where user characteristics and behaviours are given attention throughout each stage of development. Below is a smart metaphor called “Satisfying the Cat” by John Boykin that illustrates the relationship between the client and the end user. If a design is focused on how the user consumes and navigates, then it is a thoughtful and likely successful piece of work.
The design reads your mind
Although understanding consumer behaviour is important for good design, it’s equally vital to think about human behaviour.
How does the human brain work? While I was trying to figure out the better ways of doing my job as a designer, I became more and more interested in the psychology behind user experience and interaction design. I love that there are many psychological reasons for design, especially in software. It’s exciting to think that I am able to predict how the end users are going to interact with the product I’m designing.
Clearly, I’m very passionate about human cognitive process, sensory perception, etc. and I’ve been taking courses to learn more. With the amount of information out there on the psychology of design, this topic deserves its own blog (stay tuned). In the meantime, I’ll share a couple more obvious examples of psychological elements to look for in design.
Colours are a big part of design. For instance, red implies a sense of urgency or warning. Without even reading a red stop sign or computer pop-up, people automatically become cautious. Red has a unique power to affect a user’s emotion and mood, making it a tricky colour to work with.
I’ve collaborated with clients that had bright red as their brand colour. Although the colour was part of their strategy, a dominant use of red on a website or app can be discouraging and uncomfortable on the eyes. A user wouldn’t feel safe hitting a red button or navigating a red screen, given the reaction this colour evokes. That’s why I chose to use red as an accent colour and avoided it for backgrounds and Call to Action buttons.
Something as small as the shape of a button is also important to keep in mind when building or evaluating a design.
With CTA buttons, the whole button shape and text is interactive. However, when a button has sharp corners, people tend to avoid hovering around or clicking on the edges of the shape. Sharp edges appear dangerous and make users think they’re making an irreversible decision. Alternatively, a button with rounded corners appears much more friendly and easy on the eyes. Here are the psychological reasons behind this:
1. We’re conditioned to like rounded things rather than sharp things, since sharp objects present a threat.
2. Processing edges involves more work for the brain than processing round objects.
3. Rounded shapes bring focus to what’s inside the object, rather than its surroundings.
When we consider this cognitive logic, it’s clear why rounded edges are used more than sharp edges (it’s not just because of aesthetics).
It’s also key to consider the way our eyes navigate a page. Research has shown that people simply scan a page for information by following certain patterns. For example, the F-pattern uses two horizontal eye movements from left to right followed by a left vertical movement. The Z-pattern involves looking from the top left to top right, down to the bottom left, then across to the bottom right.
If a design does not take into account any of these patterns (or other well researched eye movement patterns), then users may waste time trying to find what they need or dismiss the design immediately.
Colour, shape and scanning are only three examples out of a million. There are countless psychological principles to research and learn. If these principles are considered, then a design is definitely on its way to being objectively good.
At the end of the day…
Sometimes, a good design simply means that the audience enjoys interacting with it so much, they could stare at it for hours. This can always be subjective, and that’s totally fine. Although there are plenty of psychological and business based rationales that lead to an objectively good design, I actually believe that personal preferences are valuable. They help me stay on the right path when I am working on design deliverables, whether it is UX, UI or marketing materials. When I hear my client say “I like it”, it is always a great sign.
I have to say the influence of personal preference is often unavoidable. Still, objectivity can exist if you understand your user, your message and the principles behind great design. Being aware of messaging fundamentals can help designers gain confidence when presenting their design solutions. As for non-designers and clients, getting a grasp on what goes into every piece of work can lead to more effective evaluation. Either way, keeping these tips in mind could lead to better understanding and measurement of project process and feedback validity.
Next time you’re checking out a design, try not to let personal preference cloud your judgment — there’s always value to looking at things from an objective standpoint.