Nothing well-designed is the way it is, simply “because it looks good.” It’s the other way around: it looks good to you as a result of the way it is. Think about it. The brands you love don’t all look alike. But you do think every single one of them looks great in their own way. How can that be? Didn’t we just establish that you have a personal preference? Then how come you like how clean and sophisticated Apple’s identity looks, but also how bold and dynamic Red Bull’s marketing is? Apple and Red Bull look nothing alike.
What’s going on here?
It turns out, in a way, Apple and Red Bull do look very similar. And so do Target, Nike, JCPenny, Home Depot, and Coca-Cola. They look alike in the sense that they are all consistent in their visual language and that their design system is so well-defined that there’s no wiggling-room. They know exactly how big their logo should be in every possible scenario because they’ve thought about it a lot.
It looks great to you because it all feels like it works. It makes sense.
Every aspect of a great design has a purpose. The color. The use of space. The borders — or lack thereof. The font, the letter-spacing, the leading, the kerning, the shapes, the patterns, everything there is, and everything there isn’t, is the result of rational thinking, debate, and ultimately, logic. Every aspect of a design, also everything that is not there, is deliberate. That is what constitutes good design. Purpose.
Contrary to what people believe, designers don’t think in shapes or trippy colors or twenty-five dimensions. Designers think in function. Even for the simplest of things, like a business card, the designer starts thinking about an underlying structure based on a set of requirements.
This is not to say that visual thinking does not exist. Quite the contrary: it’s been documented that over 60% of the general population has the ability to practice visual thinking, and it is safe to assume that many designers fall into this group. However, what really matters is what the designer visualizes. The answer is: the designer visualizes solutions to problems, not entire works of art. Being able to visualize potential solutions before drawing them onto a canvas greatly speeds up the design process. But it doesn’t change the fact that the choices made are based on the set of requirements, not on magical creative impulses.
“This company identifies as modest and thoughtful. This means we have to be careful not to use the logo too prominently because that would come across as bold and daring. Maybe we can even get away with not using the logo at all, but just a subtle reference instead? That would be a great manifestation of modesty, and if the reference is clever, it’s also a sign of thoughtfulness.”
Thoughts like these form the very foundations of a design. As the designer thinks, slowly, a structure emerges. A structure based on logic and questions asked and answered. We’re beginning to see now that graphic design isn’t artistry, let alone romantic. It’s a cold, rational process.
“The opposite of being modest is loud and obnoxious, extra large and extra heavy. Perhaps we can look for a smaller sized business card to reflect this modesty. It’s also a nice nod to ecological sustainability: a smaller card requires fewer resources. It says: I’m fine with being smaller. I don’t need much.”
This process goes on and on — even for a business card, there can be 30 or 40 or even 100 choices being made this way. One by one, choices are made by connecting function, expectations, use-cases, and even precedence to “how things should look.” These choices determine the use of space, color, shapes, and text. As the process evolves, more and more options are crossed off, and eventually, the designer arrives at a point where everything makes perfect sense.
When you then look at that business card, and you think, “well, damn, that looks great,” it looks great to you because it all feels like it works. It makes sense. Everything that is there, and everything that isn’t, is working in harmony to do, say, and convey exactly what it should—nothing more, and nothing less.
And then someone comes along and says, “Maybe make the logo bigger, and move it to the corner. There’s plenty of space.”.
The late nineteenth-century architectural and industrial design principle “Form follows function” draws a great parallel between three dimensional and graphic design. It is strikingly summarized as “the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose”.
In addition, many other fields have well-documented protocols on how a (design) process should take place. An example of this is the engineering design process: “A common series of steps that engineers use in creating functional products”, of which the first two steps are research and [defining] design requirements. “Establishing design requirements and conducting requirement analysis, sometimes termed problem definition (or deemed a related activity), is one of the most important elements in the design process.”