by Art Piccio . June 25th, 2015
Good designers don’t follow trends for no good reason. Mediocre ones fawn over things without getting why or how they work.
Here are things that newbie designers think are hallmarks of good design.
So many designers gravitate towards these typefaces not necessarily because they’re the best solutions to a specific problem – but because they are safe.
Safe isn’t always bad, but font choices should go beyond stating a literal thought and help communicate things about the product that the text does not say outright.
The negative backlash against fonts such as Comic Sans and Papyrus likely took root from the fact they were everywhere, even if they may not always have been the best possible choices in most contexts. In a professional setting, it’s arguable there are very few places these fonts could work. They aren’t “safe”.
James Cameron’s Avatar famously took some flak for using Papyrus (or rather, a font very similar to it). Many designers understandably questioned the choice.
But was it a bad choice, really? Did it ruin the highest-grossing movie to date for anyone who wasn’t interested in graphic design? Could James Cameron have done better if he commissioned a custom font?
Personally, I’m not a huge Papyrus fan but in the context of the film, it helped communicate some idea that the movie dealt with something mystical or ancient. Futura, Helvetica, and most of the other “popular with graphic designers” typefaces don’t do that.
As an off-the-shelf solution for one of the most expensive films ever made, Papyrus worked brilliantly for helping the film makers express an idea while probably helping them save a few dollars.
Let’s get one thing straight – a minimum viable product isn’t always minimalist. A product has to be viable if it’s to be considered a good design.
For example, this minimalist watch is so badly designed, the makers had to point out what time it actually says.
Designs should not be cluttered, true. But it should never be at the expense of functionality or user experience. A Formula 1 car could theoretically run so much faster and turn much quicker if engineers didn’t add safety features. Of course, if they did that drivers would start getting killed left and right.
Extending the idea to software, lines of code on many popular applications can get scary-minimalist, sometimes even when security issues are concerned. You don’t hear hackers complaining though.
One more relatable example is the choice of cardstock for business cards or invites. As far as minimum functionality goes, you can print on nearly anything you want, and many people do choose to print on the cheapest card and paper stock they can find. And when these people do, they start wondering why no one takes them seriously.
A better choice is often to print in on more durable stock with an appropriate coating. The cost increase is usually negligible, but the effectiveness of your cards and invites as far your audience would perceive it is exponential. That is, if your copy makes sense.
Feature creep is the perpetual bane of designers wishing to create products that are easy to understand. Yet it continues to happen because we often need to create something that sells, not necessarily something that functions better.
The truth is, while most of your customers and clients want something that does a lot of things, usage patterns for things ranging from e-commerce websites to smartphones seem to show very few people even get close to maximizing what they already have.
How many buttons do you regularly use on your microwave? If you have a model with a digital keypad, chances are you only use one or two buttons regularly, and only rarely find use for the other 15-30 or so buttons now found on most microwaves.
But it just seems a silly question if you have one of the older analog designs with just two dials for “power” and “time”.
Not only do they tend to totally lack buttons, you probably tend to use both dials and therefore all the controls. If you’re like most people, you probably just need those 99% of the time.
So is it worth it to have that many more buttons and that much more complexity?
It depends whether you just want to deliver a solid product that does what’s advertised that few people know they want, or something needlessly feature-rich that dazzles more people into wanting it.
Excessive drop shadows and gradients in graphic design is widely agreed to be a bad thing. But why is it bad? Is it because everyone was doing it in the 2000’s? Is it because “flat design” is inherently better? This piece from Fastcodesign probably says it better than we could.
The nature of design aesthetics is that when certain things start looking “played out”, they no longer have the zing they used to have.
It’s important to some extent to keep with the times, true. But this has to be balanced with what the design is intended for, and what identity you or your client want to convey.
Full screen photography isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But since it’s been done to death, it’s getting harder to distinguish one site from another, especially when the website designer has no original ideas of their own.
This is not an attack on these kinds of websites. It’s just that as a whole, it’s a bit too much of the same thing.
If you do decide to go with these designs on a website – or even on a wide format print – make sure to include enough distinct elements to give it its own flavor.
In the marketing context that most designers I know work with, yes it does pay to have something that is both functional and easy on the eyes. But sometimes, we pay just a little too much attention to the latter.
What good is a hip e-commerce site if the order process is way too confusing? What’s the point of a shiny new restaurant flyer that doesn’t have a map or updated contact details?
It’s great to be able to catch our attention. But make sure you have a working plan for what happens next.
Whether we’re talking about parallax scrolling or haptic feedback technology, it’s a mistake to include this kind of feature just because you can. When responsive features have to be implemented, they have to be done in a way that follows human behavior.
When implemented badly like in the example above, responsive features add complexity without adding value to the user experience– at best.
At worst, they can confuse the actual purpose of a product, making it more difficult to use.
It’s one thing to take inspiration from the past, but it’s another thing to completely disregard developments being made in the present. It’s not like bad design did not exist back then. Good design just tends to stand the test of time, so we see and experience those far more often.
Even otherwise brilliant pieces of retro design have now glaring errors built in them. The handle on the early 1980’s Commodore 1311 joystick below actually has corners.
New developments in the arts and sciences are made every single day. Our understanding of human behavior and biomechanics continues to evolve, as do the preferences of the ones we design for. Falling back to past for no good reason is probably one of the most obvious reasons for mediocre design today.
Uniformity can be attractive in plenty of contexts. It offers simplicity for real world products and strengthens identity. But a necessary consequence is that many situations are not adequately covered by a single solution.
This is an important point now that the era of mass customization is upon us. We no longer expect geography or access to knowledge to limit the solutions available. We expect designs that fit our needs to a tee, and fewer clients are willing to accept otherwise.
– Salvador Dali
Sometimes the best designs are not the ones that could solve our problems the best, but instead are the ones that could solve our problems now.
In a real world context, perfect solutions are rarely worth pursuing either due to the sheer time they would take to develop, or due to the monetary and opportunity costs involved.
A textbook example would be the VHS vs Betamax format war of the 1980’s. Sony’s Betamax was a superior format in terms of image and sound fidelity compared to JVC’s VHS. Their players and recorders were also of much higher quality construction.
VHS on the other hand, initially had twice the recording capacity of Beta, thanks to a major error by Sony executives who chose to restrict Beta’s total recording time to one hour in the first few versions, mostly because a prior format, the U-matic, had that capacity.
If you ever handled both Beta and VHS recorders, there clearly was no contest which design was more elegant. The Betamax machines opened so much more smoothly, while most VHS devices were pretty crude, at least early on.
However, the high quality construction of Betamax devices meant that all things being equal, they were more expensive to manufacture. JVC also licensed VHS tech to anyone who wanted it. This resulted in VHS machines being much cheaper – often by hundreds of dollars.
For most consumers, it didn’t matter that Beta had better sound or picture quality, or that their machines were better made. What they wanted was a lower price and longer recording times – in that order.
Later on, as the market swayed in VHS’s favor, far more titles became available for VHS than for Beta, further increasing VHS’s dominance.
If you think this doesn’t apply to you, think again. How often did you spend way too much time refining something that could have actually been deliverable weeks or even months ago?
Unless it’s an unusually specific need that needs to be met, it’s often best not to design beyond “good enough”, especially when unit volumes moved are an important consideration.
Design is about solutions. If there’s anything that could be considered artistic, it should be in support of that solution, or incidental to it.
This is less of a problem in fields such as industrial design and architecture, but a constant menace in many others. For example, too many graphic artists are masquerading intentionally or not, as graphic designers.
The roles are related but substantially different. A designer works in service of a solution to a specific problem. An artist on the other hand, works towards expression, with everything else secondary.
If you hire a designer, especially an untested one, it’s always important to look at their portfolio.
How do they approach problems? Do the solutions make sense? Are the problems even problems at all? Do they have the empathy needed to understand how users act?
To be honest, you don’t need this stupid list. What we all need is to exercise not only empathy, but due diligence in researching and understanding how your product will work, and how it’s going to be sold.
It’s not glamorous, it’s not easy, it’s got nothing to do with your delusions of being the next Paul Rand or Dieter Rams. It’s just what needs to be done.
All images via imgur.com unless noted
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Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.
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