So What Makes Great Design?

Last week I tackled the question, “What makes good design?” to spell out the rules of basic competency. But knowing all the rules and putting them into practice doesn’t necessarily make someone a great designer. Mastering the art requires a more – that “more” requires intuition and the ability to recognize what’s needed on a project by project basis. This is where things get tricky and require tons of practice. Here’s the more difficult rules I’ve discovered. Also, many of them work for every art, including writing.


Your imagery has to communicate as much as the type.


Sometimes the imagery is the type, if you’re doing funky things like making letters morph into horses, but when you do make sure people can see the horses. I know from experience how working on a design can give you tunnel vision, making you imagine you’re communicating a whole lot more than you actually are. You can spend hours arranging a bunch of swoopy lines into the shape of a cowboy, only to have the first person you show cock their head, decide they have the right-side-up image upside down, and turn it over saying, “Is it supposed to be an elephant?”

This also goes into what I was saying about symbolism a few weeks ago. People, designers and clients alike, can get way too caught up in the significance of their chosen imagery when it doesn’t communicate squat to anyone outside their circle. You can’t think like a Freemason when you’re trying to bring people in, not exclude them.


Make sure the tone fits the project’s intention.


Just like a story’s tone has to fit, like dark tones to horror story and so on, the design of a logo or whatever has a ton of unwritten rules about what works for what and what doesn’t. These can be tricky things like cultural significance, something even pro designers screw up once in a while. I saw a guy on a design forum ask for crits on something that screamed “Mexican restaurant” (that wasn’t for a Mexican restaurant) and he didn’t realize it until other people pointed it out. This is why feedback is your friend.

If you hang around design blogs enough, you’ll read tons of articles on psychological color theory. A lot of this is Kandinsky-ite marketing woo, but there are trends you should be aware of, otherwise you might get pantsed in a Mexican restaurant situation. I won’t list examples because they could change tomorrow, which means a good designer has to keep her ear to the ground. Tone doesn’t just mean color either. It also extends to typefaces, geometry, etc.


Looking good is not enough.


A good-looking design is a competent one, but that doesn’t always make it great. Looking good alone isn’t enough to be memorable. It has to be compelling. This means it speaks on personal level to the people you want to reach. You have to know what you have on your hands and who you think will want it in their hands too. If that means doing a book title in a hideous green booger font because you’re targeting ten-year-olds um … so be it?


Don’t just follow the trends.


Counter to what I said above about keeping your ear to the ground, if you just follow whatever trends you find, you’re still only wading in the competency pool. A great designer makes the trends, and does that by inventing. If you’re trying to communicate a specific idea, do an image search to find out what the clichés are and do something different. The true master knows how to do a balancing act between what people will instantly “get” because the idea seems obvious at a glance, and yet it’s not the first idea to come to mind – because the latter has already been done by everyone else. This leads to the next point:


Don’t go for the first idea that comes to mind.


I need say little to elaborate on this. Come up with a crapload of ideas and give yourself at least a week to mull them over. You may not always get that time if you have an impatient client who wants the work yesterday, but that’s a compromise you sometimes have to make. You have to tell that client, “You can have it fast, cheap, or good. Pick two.”


Scrap the idea when it’s not working.


This is another intuitive skill that can only develop with practice. Most people, while learning the basics, will work an idea to death because they don’t have the confidence to say when it’s done or when it’s done for. You’ll feel something’s wrong in the pit of your stomach. You may not be able to put a finger on it, so put it down for a week (if you can) or get someone else’s opinion on it. What you need is a fresh pair of eyes.


A master knows when to break to the rules.


Someone once asked on a writing forum I frequent, “How do you know when to break the rules?” I answered: you’ll know when to break the rules because you’ll know what the rule is and why you want to break it. I’ve heard pro designers give similar advice as, “Make sure everything you do is deliberate.” This doesn’t mean cutting out messing around, denying any chance of serendipitous discovery. What it does mean is once messing around time is over, follow through with deliberate choices.

Of course, you won’t know whether or not your experiment was successful until it reaches someone else’s brain and they respond to it (or fail to), and this is what most of these rules come down to. Design is an art of communication. If your design doesn’t communicate a damned thing, it’s failed, and you’ll only figure that out through trying. Last of all:


It matters even when it doesn’t matter.


Every chance you have to do something related to your work is an opportunity to get more practice. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, but it does matter whether or not you put the effort in. If you only care when it’s important, you’ll suck more often when the stakes are high. The best illustrators sketch and doodle every day. The best writers put enough care into their posts on the internet to be intelligible to other human beings. The best designers still care about kerning when doing small charity jobs for their moms. The person who thinks, “Eh, good enough.” and does a half-assed job whenever possible with always be mediocre.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

8 thoughts to “So What Makes Great Design?”

  1. It’s like everything creative: the difference between competent/good and great is a huge leap over an abyss.

    Some people people are born on the right side of the abyss.

    One of my writing books said that there were three kinds of writers: the ones in the bottom 10% – they would never get a lot better no matter how much they tries; the ones in the top 10%; and the ones in the 80% middle, who could move themselves up to the very top of that category with hard work, and a determined effort to educate themselves, but they might never move into the top category, because they didn’t have ‘it.’

    I don’t know if I will ever have ‘it,’ but I will do everything possible to move to the top of that middle section, and I won’t whine about those who are born to live in the top band. That part’s not up to me.

    Great design has that recognition factor that goes along with ‘How in the world did she think of that?’

    And your comment about not getting tunnel vision. Yikes – so true. Get feedback – or be prepared for epic fail.

    1. I’m convinced the difference between the top 10% and the rest is purely a matter of dedication and immersion. I may never reach the top 10% as a designer because I’d rather immerse myself in writing, design being a sideline to that. Whereas the people who become great designers live, eat, and breathe it every single day. I recognize that drive in other people, especially when it comes to things I know I could do better were I as dedicated as them. I say it’s ok to be in that position, where you can accept that you’re highly competent but don’t have the time to pursue it to true mastery. Tons of professionals still make decent money in that category.

      I’m also convinced the bottom 10% are the people who just never listen. They’re the kind of people who live their whole lives with cotton in their ears, doing what they do without paying attention to what’s going on around them. In other words, absolute thickos, and they probably treat everything in their lives with equal sloppiness.

      I see that attitude whenever someone makes nigh-unintelligible posts on the internet asking for writing advice, pay no heed to that advice, and then complain when people start criticizing the posts themselves for being badly written. They always say, “But it’s just a post on the internet. What’s the deal?” And the “deal” is always the fact that they write shoddily in all circumstances because they don’t care enough to not suck in a general way all the time. It’s always that, because a skill like writing well is one that becomes so natural that it would take more effort (or the wrong prescription medication) to write that badly. Like so:

      I should add that last point to the list: it matters even when it doesn’t matter.

  2. I apologize for ‘tries’ instead of ‘tried.’ I did not proof my comment well enough.

    It matters. It really matters.

    If you use your best ALL the time, it gets better. If you get sloppy part of the time, sloppiness slips into your modus operandi – and you find yourself making more and stupider mistakes.

    I want greatness. And I will get as close as I can with hard work; the rest will be things I can’t control. Such as a lack of something important.

    I see a lot of prolific writers whose books are NOT good, and I think of the Peter Principle: those writers may be doing as well as they are capable of. I hope they’re having fun, which is as good a reason as most to write if you don’t absolutely need the money, but isn’t helpful if you need it to live on.

    If you depend on your writing, it’s not going well, and you’re already indie, you need the feedback of people who WILL tell you your plots need work and your characters all talk the same way. But you have to listen, as you pointed out.

    I have accepted a great deal of the feedback I’ve gotten (I’m not a total idiot), and am grateful now, as I do the final edits for PC, that I have all those comments to look at one last time, because several of them have been quite useful. It was the result I hoped for from posting a new scene every week.

    There isn’t a lot there – I put out pretty finished work – but there is enough to have made the whole process of blogging a book worth it, and I got a lot of nice support from my tiny band of followers as I wrote.

    It just FEELS egotistical to claim you reach for greatness. In public. I was brought up to be more reluctant to tout my wares.

    1. Don’t worry about the typo. That’s definitely not what I mean when I talk about writing badly. Those prolific writers who spew out crap, those are almost always people who style themselves “one draft wonders” – never edit, never look back. They’ve got their formula and people buy their crap, so they churn it out like a Play-Doh extruder filled with horribleness.

      One thing that annoys me about those kind in particular is how much they scoff at anyone who has “pretentions to greatness” as though trying for it is somehow beneath them because all their mighty dollars tell them so. Screw those Horizontal Champions.

      1. It doesn’t make any difference in the least, but when I don’t like a book, it’s often because it shows the effects of being a one-draft wonder (?), in that the plot doesn’t quite hang together, the characters do things for reasons known only to the author, and backstory is used with a backhoe.

        There are several very famous, very prolific writers who brag about doing most of the work in their head. I would call BS, but that’s impolite, so I’ll just say it’s a very hard claim to disprove, but their current draft could use several more times around the block.

        Often they are facile writers with impeccable mechanics – they know how to punctuate dialogue and write well as they go.

        Am I a snob? You betcha. What’s the point, at my age, of writing like that? I wish them success and happiness and lots of readers. We won’t be sharing the same ones.

        1. I know some writers who can do most of the drafting in their head (Tom), but they are slow writers. All that in-head work can take years before they get it all down, and by then all the plot points and character work is ironed out. Some of them can even write it fast, once it’s ready to come out – I think Paulo Coelho described The Alchemist as a book that took five years to think up and three weeks to write.

          Definitely a different breed from the prolific hacks though. I don’t begrudge them their success either, but I do try to stay out of the shallow end of the pool where they like to wee. Yeah, I’m a bit of a snob too. Hee hee.

          1. Heinlein said it took him 11 years and 62 days to write Stranger in a Strange Land: 11 years of false starts and shelving the story while he figured out what it was actually about, and 62 days to write it once he knew how it needed to go.

  3. @Tom, Right! Too many people discount the amount of work that goes on in a writer’s head, including the Horizontal Champions who think their wordcount is all that matters.

    Since I’ve been writing an hour or more everyday, I’ve been noticing patterns in my own output. I can write over 1000 words and hour, but none of those words are good. In fact, they’re so terrible I end up with nothing more than an outline because the whole draft has to be rewritten from scratch. Whereas if I slow down to about 500 words per hour or so, I end up with cleaner first drafts that I can actually work with.

    I may speed up with more practice, but I definitely need time for my brain to arrange my thoughts into something coherent before I write it down. Just spewing it out without a care doesn’t produce anything I can use.

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