What is good graphic design?

Somebody once said, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” That was a Supreme Court Justice, and he was talking about pornography, but he could’ve been talking about good graphic design.

Graphic design is vastly different than fine art — the sole reason for its existence is to communicate a message. But, that said, you can’t discount the art of it; most of the printed messages communicated to us could be a hand-scribbled sentence on the back of a coffee-stained receipt, taped haphazardly to the wall.

It’s really both an art and a science. Your piece needs to be constructed in a pleasantly eye-catching way that would make someone want to look, while the text needs to impart the knowledge that you want them to know.

Let’s talk about the art of it first.

Good graphic design will incorporate many things: balance, proportion, contrast, direction, a point of emphasis, and white space.

  • Design is in balance when all the individual pieces work together to create a cohesive piece. It’s like the old Gestalt theory with the sum of its parts being greater than the parts individually — think of it as teamwork on a page.
  • Proportion has to do with the same thing as balance. The only difference is that the pieces work well in relation to each other in size or importance.
  • Contrast is all about making a piece visually interesting… light/dark, big/small, the contrasting element is what makes something worth looking at.
  • Direction is a repeating pattern or element that moves the viewer’s eye in a certain way… like, toward what you want them to notice.
  • And what you want them to notice would be the point of emphasis; this is the main message. Could be a headline, could be a logo, could be a statement, but it’s the main reason for the piece.
  • Last, but certainly not least, is white space. Oddly enough, empty space is what holds your piece together. Print material without thoughtful space is not appealing and is actually difficult to look at, and therefore makes for an epic fail, design-ly speaking. Never underestimate the power of restraint & empty space.

The science of design comes from knowing both your message and your audience. As somebody else once said, “You can’t get what you want til you know what you want.” (This was not the Supreme Court Justice, by the way.) What is your message? What do you need people to know as they walk away from the piece? If your main message is unclear, if you have too many main messages, or if you don’t know your main message, your design will not work, no matter how awesome the art is. It’s like meeting a really attractive person who has an objectionable personality; things might look good at the beginning, but you aren’t going to hang around for long.

Knowing your audience is also an important adjunct to this — different demographics are going to relate to different things. An acquaintance of mine once said, “I just don’t get gangsta rap.” At that time, she was a fairly well-off 67 year old Jewish woman; it’s safe to say she was not the intended gangsta rap demographic. No matter how well-crafted your message is, if it’s being seen by the wrong people it won’t work either.

If you are interested in seeing lots of good graphic design, just search “good graphic design” on Google and start looking around. You’ll find a lot of designers who have posted compilations, probably because they were trying to get inspiration and/or avoid work.

We are inundated with visuals all day long — get in the habit of noticing what pieces draw you in, which ones don’t hold your interest (or actively repel you), what you remember, and how you feel when you view them. Then you, too, can become an expert! Or at least you can avoid the wrong-headed decisions that you see being made by other people as they design their pieces.


About the author:

I graduated from Santa Rosa Junior College with a degree in graphic design. Unfortunately this was during the Pleistocene Epoch when we were still using X-acto knives, t-squares, paste-up, and did not have access to computers at school because, “it was not necessary for the degree.” So while I think I know good design, I can no longer do it, at least not if I have to use sophisticated design programs more advanced than Illustrator 88.


But I remain a whiz with the X-acto knife.


With Gusto!

We are a web & graphic design business based in Madison, Wisconsin, comprised of 5 or so people (depending on who’s in town at the time) plus a few super talented illustrators.