Bad design surrounds us. Whether it’s a confusing event flyer, a cluttered website or poorly placed road signage, bad design is everywhere. It’s almost inescapable. It’s on our menus, in our schools, on our phones. It’s on the TV remote, it’s in our cars and on the pages we scroll. So what is bad design? And what makes it bad?
So when I say “bad design” I don’t just mean stylistically. Bad design is not necessarily just bad looking, design can be bad at its core. So rather than being informative and easy-to-use, bad design is inefficient and confusing. Where bad design causes problems, good design provides solutions. People frustrated with problems caused by bad design may shake their fists and say “This sucks!” or “How stupid!?”. Yet when that same person is met with good design, it’s so good, they don’t even notice it. This is because good design serves a purpose and performs seamlessly. It’s intuitive. You don’t even have to think about it — it just works.
So how does bad design even come to fruition? What factors play a role? Cost is often a factor that precipitates bad design because it’s hard to know when you’re getting a good deal. Good design is not cheap and cheap design is not good. Everyone has a family friend or a coworker’s nephew’s dog sitter who “knows how to Photoshop” but that $100 or however many bucks you save by hiring a junior artist to create your logo can end up costing you a lot more if you have to reprint business cards or get a cease and desist for trademark infringement.
Oil well firefighter and innovator Paul Neal “Red” Adair said it best:
“If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.”
This is coming from a guy who figuratively and literally put out fires. Of course with any project there is perceived value versus the actual cost for services rendered. Unfortunately those two things don’t always add up in terms of true worth or measurable gain. This makes it hard for people to differentiate good from bad. So how do you know you are getting a good design?
Good typography, clean layout or logo design may seem easy for most people to recognize but there is a fundamental principle of good design that many don’t consider. That principle is functionality. Good design serves a function. All the pretty colors and style in the world is utterly useless when function and application are not considered during the creative process. Without functionality there is no purpose to the artwork, it’s just styling, and styling without function is bad design.
In order for the end user to understand the function of any given design, that function needs to be communicated. They say communication is the world’s biggest problem, and this is for good reason. When the channels of communication are fuzzy or unclear everything can fall apart. Whether it is legible type, an intuitive gesture on a mobile device or an icon that is an instant read, good design communicates. I also want to reiterate good-looking design can also be bad if it doesn’t function or communicate.
Here, I will give you an example:
You are flipping through a local magazine and a sharp looking ad for a new restaurant grabs your attention. It has excellent photos of the food, wonderful typeface choices, a cool logo and even a clever headline. You get so excited your stomach is growling just thinking about eating there. As you scan up and down the page you realize something is wrong. There’s no street address. There’s no website address — it doesn’t even have a phone number. The entire purpose and function of the piece was to promote the grand opening of a new restaurant and no one knows how to get there. “Ahh!!! What the heck were they thinking?”, I know, that’s ridiculous. Now that may seem like an extremely foolish scenario but unfortunately it is all too common. And the worst part is good people spend time and money on bad design.
So how do you avoid a mishap like that? How do you get good design and where do you get it? You hire a professional. Period. And how do you know they are a professional? Ask them if they know what makes bad design bad.