So You Think You Can Design | 4 Inside Tips from a Pro

I recently read HubSpot’s blog, “The 14 Coolest Beer Label Designs You’ve Ever Seen.” As a craft beer enthusiast who works in the marketing field, this was a blog post after my own heart. My opinion on the choices notwithstanding (Lagunitas? Cool design? Come on), I found the post really interesting — in some ways because I didn’t agree with all of the writer’s selections.

So what made these 14 beer label designs cool? What makes other less cool? Is there something other than the eye of the beholder that can answer those questions? Fortunately, VantagePoint has a slate of knowledgeable art directors who can help word nerds like me decipher the rules of good and bad design.

Below is my (ever-so-lightly-edited) interview with Danny McNight, VantagePoint’s digital and motion graphics designer and an artist in his own right.

Is there objectively good and bad design, or is everything about individual taste?

The thing about good design and art in general is there’s always a subjective quality to it. You can never reach objectivity in art because it’s, at the end of the day, how we perceive something to be. There are certain objective rules that we follow — balance, composition, color, harmony, how the eye is led through a piece — but how you perceive something to be good or bad is subjective.

However, if no one thinks something’s good in design, it’s probably not good design for that time and place. But there could come a time, because art is subjective, that people are like, “This is amazing.”

What are the generally accepted elements of good design?

There’s a bit more specificity to design. You’re usually trying to convey a message that you definitely want to get across.

Primarily, everything needs a visual point of focus. What your eye is drawn to immediately should be the focal point. If it’s not, you’ve probably done something wrong.

A good designer can lead your eyes where he wants you to go. People tend to think you just look at a piece of paper and then gather information, but a good artist is like, “I want you to look here first. I want you to look here, and then in the end I want you to look at this last.” Good design always leads you in that process.

So how does a designer accomplish that?

There are a few tools designers can use to help direct a user’s focus. Scale and hierarchy, for instance. You don’t want everything to be the same size. You want some pieces bigger, some pieces smaller to help break up the flow.

I was designing some ads the other day, and after I finished the initial round I realized that the elements — an image, text and a logo — were all the same size. You don’t know where to look first. If the image were the focal point, if that’s the biggest thing there, that draws your eye and you can process the image a little better.

Another important element is color. Three is typically a good number — one dominant, one complimentary and then one that’s an accent color. Keep most of your colors limited to that. The more you add, the less dominant anything feels, and it sort of breaks down and everything gets muddy.

Balance and other elements also contribute to whether a design seems “good.” The rule of thirds is one everybody has heard about. If you have something directly centered, it’s very, very stagnant, and it really affects the flow of a design. If it is off-centered, it creates movement. Your eye goes in a circular motion.

People can tell when something’s bad, but they might not be able to articulate why. All of these things fit into that. If something’s slightly off balance, if something looks a little heavy on one side versus the other, if blocks of text aren’t really lined up, people can sense that. They notice that it’s not good but can’t articulate why.

The designer is supposed to know why things can go wrong and keep them from happening.

What are the most common design mistakes you see?

Not having a focus.

Overusing color. I think people don’t appreciate using neutral colors and want to just use dominant colors.

Just doing too much. A lot of people seem to think that the more you have in a piece, the more tools you use, the better it is. But it’s actually the opposite. Think of Apple’s designs. Everything is white background, nice photograph of the piece of technology and clean text. Everybody recognizes that as good design, something that’s desirable. The less you use — the more simple, the more controlled, the more focused — the more effective it can be.

Really, though, your end goal can determine what is good and bad design. Commercial art has to look good, but chiefly you have to convey your message. You can use all the principles of design but if you’re not conveying your message, it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s bad at what it is. And in some respects, that’s bad design.

Have you seen examples of bad design? Tell us how they went wrong, in the comments below.

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