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What makes great design?

I’m often confronted by design that a business has had created and they ask my opinion. Quite often it leaves me with a sinking feeling, not that I’m decrying other designers’ work but I feel I must help educate design buyers to understand what makes great design.

Design is about creating harmony and balance among the elements and having them come together in a final product that is outstanding. It’s not simply a case of throwing some images and copy on an advert or brochure. It’s so much more than that.

The designer/client relationship is a partnership and often this is not the case. By taking the time to choose the right agency and getting to know how each other work, you get so much more out of the relationship. Being thorough with your briefing and the agency being thorough in their questioning and research, the magic happens.

I want to help design buyers really understand what makes great design. It’s not a guide to help you to design yourself but how to get the best results from hiring a design agency to create the project for you. After all that is what they do, day in day out, for a wide variety of clients. It’s a guide to help you assess the design concept that is presented to you.


1. Do the ground work

You wouldn’t build a house without creating the foundations first; if you did it would fall down! The same goes for any of your marketing – think it through. What do you stand for? How do you do it differently than anyone else? Who is your ideal client, what is your message and then finally what channels will you use?


2. Stand out

In today’s message-heavy world it’s an absolute must to stand out or you’re wasting your money. By that I mean standing out with a great offer or proposition. Be different. Don’t just create something that everyone else is doing because you won’t stand out.


3. Work out your hierarchy of message

Your logo isn’t the message, so don’t have it at the top of the marketing piece as the main feature. The main feature should be the message/benefit you want to convey – the point you want to put across.


4. Appropriate typography?

Keep to a maximum of three typefaces and choose the typefaces to suit the message and the audience. For example, where you’re creating a message for your tenants to move them from traditional contact points to digital, choose a typeface that is friendly and non-threatening.


5. Lines and shapes

Lines are effectively used in separating or creating a space between other elements or to provide a central focus. The direction, weight, and character of the line can convey different states of emotions and can evoke various reactions.

Use shapes to add interest to your elements. Angular shapes indicate masculinity while velvety and curvy shapes like circles indicate femininity. Square shapes, elements, or designed items communicate security, trustworthiness, and stability. On the other hand, circles are like eye candy: They are organic, complete and communicate wholeness.


6. Alignment

When elements are aligned, they create a visual connection with each other that communicates a story. Alignment helps to put elements together in a visible and readable arrangement.


7. Choose the right imagery

Put the cook in the kitchen, so if your ideal client is an elderly person, don’t use images of a young person. Even more to the point try and avoid stock imagery – invest in good quality bespoke photography – besides probably seeing your image elsewhere, you really can tell it’s stock imagery!


8. Sets you apart in the mind of the audience

There are many companies in your field doing what you do – unless you’ve invented a time machine. The key is, does your design set you apart? Does it position you as credible and align with your values?


9. Adaptable

Often at the outset of your project and the briefing stage, the agency should be asking you how this project will be used. Will it need to be used elsewhere and will it work on social media for example? We recently designed an annual report which included a set of infographics that were to be used on social media so it was important to ensure they were easy to dissect and supply as individual images.


10. Instantly understandable

There’s no point making it difficult for your customer to understand what you are trying to say – make it easy for them. If they have to think too hard about it they will quickly move on.


11. Simple

‘Less is more’ and the most effective design pieces are those that are simple and uncomplicated. For example if you need a roller banner for an exhibition don’t try and put enough text for a brochure on it because people won’t read it. The roller banner is designed to give a snapshot of your business because it’s viewed from a distance.


Space is powerful when you want to deliver a direct message without the clutter of other design elements.


12. Contrast

You want your message to be conveyed to as many people as possible. Think about contrast of colours. Don’t for example allow yellow type on a red background as it will ‘jump’ and many people won’t even be able to read it, particularly those with visual impairment or the over 50s. Think about the contrast of certain colours and make your design piece as accessible to as many people as possible.

Contrast is also used to make elements stand out and grab attention. It creates a focal point in a design, creates visual excitement and increases the interest of any design creation. It can, for example, redirect the attention of a reader to a more important part or message of a presentation.


13. Colour

Colour affects the mood of the design. It represents different emotions and different personalities. The use of the colour red can incite anger, love, and passion or strong will. On the other hand, the colour blue, creates a sense of peace, serenity, and security.

Colour puts emphasis on the pertinent information that is conveyed by the other visual elements. It’s well worth checking out the psychology of colour that can easily be searched for on the internet.


14. Walk in their shoes

Imagine viewing the design concept from your ideal client’s point of view; look at it standing in their shoes – does it grab your attention? Does it provoke an action in you in some way?


15. Achieving the brief

Refer back to your agreed brief with the agency – does it work? Does it convey want you want it to convey?




  • Don’t use Comic Sans or Brushscript – it’s so last century
  • Don’t use drop shadows – it’s so last century
  • Do I even need to mention clip art?