In today’s world, everyone is a design critic. With consumers’ easy access to the corporate ear through social media comes highly accessible opportunities to improve user experiences. Plus, in the growing digital age where most people live in interfaces almost as much as their real lives, the spotlight on visual communication has expanded from the creative population to the general public.
Whether you’re frustrated with Netflix’s poor organization of movie options, enjoying the “Sort by ‘Price: Low to High’” option on a retail site, or feeling enticed by a Facebook ad for a product you didn’t know you needed, you’re (probably unknowingly) assessing graphic design.
With the rising population of design critics, it brings to mind questions like: How do we measure the strength of a design from a consumer perspective? How do trends affect our experiences? And how does the evolution of visual communication affect our opinions and experiences? It’s time to enhance our way of thinking about design criticism — to polish the lens through which we look at visual communication.
When looking at an ad from the 1920s, 50s, 70s, etc. one typically gets an immediate sense of the era from which it originated. But have you ever wondered what will be the defining visual design characteristics of this decade? What will we look back at and say “that was so 2010s?”
This question came to mind a few years ago while attending the Cincinnati Bockfest parade. A local business’s van rolled through in a branded vinyl wrap and suddenly I had an “aha!” moment. I found myself noticing their brand identity, identifying the aesthetic as a clear reflection of the current era. Although I don’t have a photo of that van to share, the images below illustrate what I believe to be some of the iconic graphic styles of this decade:
This modern design status-quo often dictates people’s opinions, but I think viewers sometimes misuse “good design” to describe what is actually trendy or current design. While various design techniques fall in and out of style over time, not all trendy designs are strong visual communication and vice versa. For example, in one of my first college design classes, we were taught that the use of drop-shadow was outdated. My peers and I misinterpreted that point as “the use of drop-shadow is poor design.” I eventually learned that although the use of this technique often appears outdated and therefore unappealing, it is not necessarily a reflection of bad visual communication. (In many cases, it can actually be used quite tastefully in a modern way, but I digress.) Even when used distastefully, if the composition communicates the message successfully, isn’t that the primary indicator of good graphic design?
So where do we draw the line between “good” and “on-trend” design? These days, the motifs I notice in modern visual communication are geometric shapes and patterns, symmetry, monoline styles, metallics, handwritten display fonts, knolling, and, of course, flat and minimalistic design. It’s easy to mistake designs with these elements as well-done, but that’s not a guarantee.
In the end, the success of a design, no matter the level of modern aesthetics, is dictated by its ability to achieve its goals. Good design may not always be on-trend and may be mistaken for bad design when in reality it is just outdated. Sometimes good design is unappealing to those immersed in mainstream trends, but draws in its target audience nonetheless. Other times, on-trend styles contribute to the quality of a design when used to strategically target a specific audience.
Think back to past eras’ aesthetics: although they look outdated, is the message clearly communicated? It is important for designers and critics alike to know the difference between “good design” and on-trend design. But it’s imperative for designers to be consistently immersed in the world of design education in order to stay sharp. It’s one thing to be well-versed on the principles of superior visual communication — it’s another to have the ability to adapt to modern aesthetics. Decent design communicates, period. Good design communicates strategically. Great design does so at a superior level.
Did you know that most of the professionally designed media you see every day, such as the content on websites and phone interfaces, and in magazines, is designed on an invisible grid system which guides your eye in order to optimize usability, readability, and the amount of time it takes for you to absorb a message?
Did you know that when reading a body of text, most people subconsciously take a breath at the end of each line, which is why graphic designers intentionally set paragraphs to specific widths in order to keep your breathing from slowing to a point that you become sleepy and unengaged?
And did you know that buttons on some websites are purposefully placed in unintuitive places with the intention of making you pay attention to what you’re clicking?
I want to address a common misconception about graphic design. Contrary to popular belief, a designer’s main purpose is not solely to “make things pretty.” Clearing the air of this myth is important because it may enable society (those around whom the entire field of design revolves) to appreciate good design, understand its value, and be more observant of bad design, thereby raising the bar for the visual communication that surrounds us.
I like to think that if enough people start calling for better graphic design in our daily lives, a government employee somewhere might finally rework the heinous train wrecks we know as voting ballots.
The examples listed above are just a few significant instances of design where “pretty” is not the priority. They’re things most people would never notice, and rightfully so. Good design is typically supposed to go unnoticed because its purpose is to create a seamless user experience and to help the user achieve a broader goal.
Sure, the best designs are aesthetically pleasing, but it’s not the aesthetic satisfaction that determines the strength of a design. Rather, good aesthetics are the result of good design. In the strongest design work, form follows function. When audiences experience designs they find “pretty,” they don’t typically notice the bones to the work that are making it not only pretty, but also user-friendly, legible, engaging, and persuasive. So, if sprinkling decorations and fancy fonts on a design isn’t the basis of the profession, what is?
Graphic design is the application of visual communication principles to the composition of optical relationships between design components (hierarchy, typography, color, space, alignment, grid, etc.) within a set of parameters in order to convey a message.
The challenge in creating great graphic design is using superior strategy and creativity. Parameters can be anything from size, to time, budget, or the requirement of consistency within pre-existing brand standards, to name a few. In the highest-quality design work, every choice is made intentionally — bold text versus regular-weight text; serif font versus sans-serif font; sharp corners versus rounded corners.
The best design is free of artistic ego — it is never about the designer, nor the client’s personal aesthetic preferences. The decisions made in strong design work are first and foremost about how to best communicate with the audience. There is a science to visual communication, such as the text-box-width-breathing-scenario mentioned above, which creates challenges beyond deciding which shade of aqua is a designer’s favorite.
The misconception that graphic design is all about making things pretty is understandable; before I began my career in design school, I thought the same thing. But the field deserves respect for its truly significant contributions to society.
I hope this blog post plants a seed in your mind, encouraging you to look at the world of visual communication with a more critical and appreciative eye. And seriously, if the designer of voting ballots is reading this, please revisit those things! This concludes today’s PFP PSA. Thanks for reading.