The Not-Just-Pretty Truth About Graphic Design

Did you know that most graphic design 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.

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