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Creating great design is incredibly hard. It is something we, as designers, want to achieve with every project. It is also the reason for spending hours and hours immersed in design theory and then in practice. Just like talent, theory without practice doesn’t work. Today, we will take a look at what I believe are the three main pillars every great design must have. Quite often, these pillars are the reasons why your design doesn’t “work”. Let’s fix it and get it right.
Nowadays, use of imagery is a huge trend in web design. And, it is one of those places where it is easy to make a mistake. Even if your website is not built on large imagery, it can still make a difference. So, it makes sense to start with imagery as the first pillar of great design. I like the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Pictures have a significant power. If you want to see how significant do this simple experiment.
First, pick a website with great design that uses some images. Then, replace all those images with some really cheap-looking images. The majority of stock photos will work great, even without the watermark. Do this and you will see how in a blink of an eye great design will now look average at best. As you can see, images have a significant power in design, and not only there. And, a lot of stock images suck. This is unfortunate for two reasons.
First, stock images are paid. A lot of people spend money on stock images because they want to create great design and they think stocks will help them. In reality, stocks will often make everything worse. Second, stock images are often the first option people consider when they think about using images in design. It doesn’t matter that there are great websites such as Unsplash, StockSnap.io, Pexels and others. These are not well-known outside the design industry yet.
So, what’s the first thing you have to do right in the terms of imagery? Choose only images that meet certain quality standards. And, make sure to set these standards very high. Images that are blurry, distorted, cropped badly or with bad colors are simply not an option. If you want to create great design, you have to aim very very high. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to spend half of the project budget on imagery. High-quality images don’t translate to expensive images.
I already mentioned three websites (Unsplash, StockSnap.io, Pexels) with a large amount of images that look great. You don’t have to pay anything in order to use images from websites like these. They are royalty free. Also, images on these websites, in most cases, come in very high resolutions. So, you shouldn’t have any problems even if you want to design for a very large screens. Another source of images with potential is Flickr. However, this might be a bit trickier.
If you don’t know Flickr, you should know that it is different from these royalty free websites I mentioned above. It is more a community of enthusiast sharing their photos with other people. Some photos there are free to download and maybe use for personal project. For others, you have to pay. Or, you have to at least give a credit to the author of the photo.
What if some photo is only for personal use? Get in touch with its author and ask him if you can use for commercial work. You can offer him giving him credit for the photo (mentioning his name and linking to his profile or website). Or, you can offer him a small amount of money and buy the rights for the photo. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You will be rejected and end up without the photo. You don’t that photo. So, you will be where you are. You have nothing to lose.
Authenticity and connection matters too
Using high-quality imagery is not a silver bullet that automatically leads to great design. And, stuffing the layout will not work either. Choose a single image or ten, all of them still have to meet the requirement of authenticity and connection. Meaning, all images have to be connected to the website and the product, service or whatever it promotes. Using random images just for the effect never works. Random images create confusion and blurry message design should communicate.
So, when you are about to choose images for your design, pick only those that make sense from the view of the project. For example, let’s say you are working on a web design for elementary school. Then, images of pupils and kids in general will probably work well. The same is true for photos of older people who look like teachers. And, for sure, photos of the school and its interiors itself. If you work on a web design for business offering cloud solutions, the situation is different.
Photos of kids or older people will not work. I know this sounds like a no-brainer. Still, a lot of websites use images of smiling people, or their non-existing satisfied customers. I think that this is wrong. If your client sells cloud solutions, you should stick to that area as well to create great design. I think it will be more useful to show images of those servers than of happy people. People want to know and see what they buy.
Exception are photos of employees or company’s CEO. This allows customers to see from whom they are buying. Photos like these can help customers create stronger connection with company and the product. So, this is the big three for imagery – quality, authenticity and connection.
By the way, photos of smiling people looking right at you often almost scream “I am a cheap stock photo!” I’m not sure why, but these photos just look like a fake. If your goal is great design and not average, you should stay away from them. Plus, you will make your client happy because you will save some of his money.
The second pillar of great design is typography. Bad typography can destroy great design just like cheap and poor imagery. I actually think that it is easier to ruin great design by using wrong typeface than by using wrong image. The reason is simple. I think that typography is harder to learn and master. Choosing the right image requires thinking about fewer conditions than choosing the right typeface. At least, this is what I think.
In case of images, you have to keep in mind quality, authenticity and connection. It is a kind of a paradox that these requirements also apply to typography. Any typeface you decide to use in your project has to meet certain quality and it has to be authentic and connected to your project. However, in case of typeface, meeting these requirements is harder. Not only that there are different types or styles of typefaces, such as blackletter, monospaced, roman, scripts and so on.
Typefaces also convey different moods. For example, some typefaces are modern while others are traditional. Some typefaces are light while other are dramatic. Or, typefaces can be warm or cool. Also, some fonts, such as Helvetica, take on the mood and feel of other typefaces. In other words, they are considered neutral or “moodless.” It is through the mood how you create feeling of authenticity and connection between typeface and project.
Typefaces and mood
This is something you as designer have to consider when you choose typeface(s) for your project. As with images, picking random typefaces on the Internet doesn’t work, at least not in reality. Even though you might have luck and choose the right typeface here and there, it is not the right strategy for the long term. It is much better to look only for source of quality typefaces. Just as you can’t build a stable building with broken bricks, you can’t create great design with bad typefaces.
So, how to choose the right typeface and create great design? Start with doing a review of your sources of typefaces. That’s the step number one. The second step is to think deeply about your project so you really understand it. What are the goals of your project? What message do you want to communicate? Who is your audience? Who is your client? What is the character of his brand? What feelings should your design evoke? How should people viewing your design feel?
Remember that you are establishing specific mood with every typeface you choose. Let me give you one simple example. Imagine a website that uses Futura, Raleway or Merriweather Sans as typeface for body. What do you feel? Then, imagine the same website, but now it uses Lobster or Comic Sans. What do you feel now? Finally, imagine that our website uses typeface like Roboto Mono or PT Mono. I’m sure you feel the difference. With every change, the mood changes as well.
Choosing the right typeface
This is why using high-quality typefaces is not enough, just like in case of images. Great design needs typeface that feels right. It has to be authentic with the brand and goal of your project. It has to convey the same mood and message. If your project embraces playfulness, typefaces of your choice should be playful as well. Yes, in this case, even typeface such as Comic Sans or Lobster can be a good choice and lead to great design.
The most important thing is that chosen typefaces is the right fit. It fits the project and client’s brand and business. Also, we should not forget the target audience. Not only has the typeface speak the same language, it has to match the mood of target audience. As a result, not only that your typeface helps the design communicate the message, it amplifies it. It makes the message stronger. Then, 1 + 1 is not 2, but 3 or 4.
When you chose wrong typeface, the result is either 1 or 0. Great design goes out the window. So, again, start with high-quality resources and then think about the project. What is its goal? What feelings do you want the design to evoke? When you look at client’s business and brand, what do you feel? Imagine that your design is a person. What characteristics should she have? In other words, what is she like? Is she reserved or cold? Is she warm, energetic or playful?
Then, do the same with the typeface. Imagine that the typeface you picked is a person. Does it have the same characteristics as your project? If not, what’s different? You may not know why exactly the typeface doesn’t work. All you may have is just a feeling. Well, even that is enough. If you don’t feel the typeface is the right choice, try different one. Do this until you find the right fit. This will get you one step closer to creating great design.
White space (negative space)
The last pillar of great design is using proper amount of white space. White space allows the layout to breathe. Design with a lot of white space also often evokes feelings of luxury. Take a look at some websites offering high-end products or services. What will you often see is a simple, minimalist layout with a lot of white space. You can see the same if you visit some luxury store, like Zara, Gucci, Rolex or Apple. Lower amount of products surrounded by empty space.
White space also helps people consume information in the layout. If your layout is content-heavy, say a website, you can use white space to make it more spacious. Otherwise, people might feel overwhelmed and leave the website without doing desired action. Lastly, spacious layout just looks better than layout where every is squeezed together on small space. So, even if your project is not content-heavy, white space can help you create great design.
There are two potential problems with creating great design through white space. The first problem is choosing the right amount of white space. Unfortunately, I don’t have solution for this problem. My answer is usually this. More is often better and go with your gut. You have to make sure not to break visual hierarchy and keep elements that should be visually connected connected. Unless you reach this line, I think your gut or instinct will help you get there.
White space, great design and clients
The second problem is selling your design “stuffed” with white space to your client. Doing great design is one thing. Getting paid for it is another. You can’t survive only on oxygen, at least not for a long time. So, this means that if you want to produce great design as your main work, and not as side projects, you need to sell it. Don’t get me wrong here. Clients like great design just like you do. However, some of them don’t like the idea of leaving some space “empty”.
A lot of clients think that white space represents space that is unused. In addition, they always have something they can use to fill it up. As a result, it can be sometimes hard to convince them the opposite is true. And, this is exactly what you have to do every time you design something. You have to find a way to show your client why your design is the right one and why it will work. My approach is to use the same words I used above.
I tell my clients about the benefits of using a lot of white space. How it makes the content easier to read and consume for people. How it helps prevent overwhelming people with too much information, which can result in leaving the website, and fewer sales. Also, I like to show my clients examples of high-end websites. This helps demonstrate the power white space has. It is hard to argue with it when you experience that perception of luxury on your own skin.
It is also easy to show client easier it is to make a buying decision in e-shop that doesn’t overwhelm customers and uses a lot of space. Examples of luxury e-shops work very well. It is easier to make a decision when information comes in small chunks than when you are flooded with them. The later is not an experience you would want to have, at least not repeatedly. Finally, if everything else fails, I will do ask a couple of people and do a A/B test.
It is one thing if your client thinks he is right. It is something different when there is a group of people saying something different. And, if those people agree with my client? I will accept client’s decision and change the design according to his recommendations. My goal is not creating great design for the sake of creating great design. My goal is, first and foremost, creating something that works and people like to use it.
So, if majority decides for variant A, I will deliver that … And, I will keep the variant B for myself and use both variants on my portfolio and to present my work to future clients. However, that doesn’t mean you should give up easily. You are the designer, not your client. Stand by your word and use valid and strong arguments to support your decision. Chances are that you will sell your great design because your client will simply like it.
Closing thoughts on creating great design
I believe that create great design is like cooking great dish. Your dish will be great only if all ingredients are great. Just one bad ingredient is enough to make the whole experience worse, even much worse. For example, have you ever used too much salt? It doesn’t matter how great and tasty your dish might be. Add five tablespoons of salt to it and you will not want to eat even single bite. Well, at least not after the first try.
We can say the same about design. Great design requires that all ingredients are perfect. One weak link in the chain can destroy all the work you’ve been working on. This is why you need to always double-check all your assets are perfect. No detail is too small. Remember great design is composed of small pieces, each brought to perfection. So, if you feel like your design just doesn’t work, review all those parts we talked about today. Chances are that one of them is not right.
Let me give you the last piece of advice. Keep your clients happy, create great design and get paid for it. Trust me, you can have it all.
Do you have any questions, recommendations, thoughts, advice or tip you would like to share with other readers of this blog, and me? Great! Please share it in a comment. Or, if you want to keep things more "private", feel free to contact me on twitter or send me a mail. I would love to hear from you.
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