The Secret to Great Design

Photo by Bekah Stargazing

Photo by Bekah Stargazing

Get your pencils ready. I’m about to reveal the secret to great design:

Great design is invisible.

Think about it.  We all know what bad design looks like: clashing color schemes, too many fonts, not enough white space, boring one-size-fits-all layouts.

What does great design look like?

What’s that?  You know it when you see it?


Last week, Matt and I presented a set of designs to a client that, frankly, kind of knocked my socks off.  As we were preparing for the presentation, I started noticing all the little touches that made those designs special.

I realized, to my dismay, that the client could glance at any of those designs, with their perfectly placed drop shadows and carefully calibrated textures, and said, “I don’t like the photo. This one’s out.”

He would never know (or care) that the previous and next buttons on the product scroller are that shape because it lends a certain elegance to the design that otherwise would have been lacking.

He doesn’t know that the photograph he supplied, with its soft, textured background, inspired a whole design that was about his products being homemade.

And that’s our greatest challenge as commercial graphic designers – creating art that we know will be rejected, and probably for all the wrong reasons.

It’s a tough gig.

Graphic design is a tough gig, because you never know how long it will take to hit on just the right idea.

Because clients can’t see you sweating it out at all hours, they assume that the idea came to you in seconds and that you simply had to draw it out.

They don’t understand that you may have spent days feeling your way through the design, while you were fixing dinner, or changing a diaper, or buying groceries. That you’ve given over half of your brain to their project for a period of days or weeks while you weighed dozens of options.

How do you put a price tag on that?

What to do?

There’s nothing to do but to go on surrendering our brains to the project and creating complex designs that we know are destined for the wastebasket.

Because the more sophisticated the design, the less the client will appreciate its sophistication.

Because great design is invisible.

I always know we’re on the right track with a design when the client starts talking about content. It means they didn’t notice the design and that’s just what we want.

A design you notice is a bad design.  The fact that you notice it gets in the way of the communication it’s supposed to support.

So we’ll keep on adding all those little touches, even though they are unappreciated, because that’s how we create great design. We make it look easy because that’s the only way to create designs that get the job done.

We’ll just have to trust you to know it when you see it.

One thought on “The Secret to Great Design

  1. Pingback: The Trap of Making It Look Easy «

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