The Difference Between Good Design and Great Design

Sep 7 2010 by Joshua Johnson | 43 Comments

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What’s the difference between a good design and a great design?

When you sit down and start a new project, that should be one of the questions at the forefront of your concerns.

Yours is a quest to constantly outdo your own past work. To go further and genuinely become better at what you do rather than falling into complacency, stagnation, and eventually, obsolescence.

Unfortunately, the answer to the riddle of what makes a design great isn’t a simple, straightforward formula that you can apply to every design. There is no secret way of designing something that will suddenly make you a hero amongst your peers and lead to your work being featured on every CSS gallery on the web.

Instead of a quick, one-size-fits-all solution to becoming a great designer, this article will present a threefold response that arises from viewing design through three necessarily different perspectives: the designer, the client and the user.

The Designer’s Perspective

This one is my favorite. As designers, our ideal audience are those individuals who understand us the most because they are just like us.

We want to design for the kind of people that will drool over the beauty of our use of CSS3 no matter how impractical the implementation; people who will comment on the aesthetic quality of the textures, the richness of the color palette and the excellence of the typography in the design.

After all, compliments feel good and there is no niche more qualified to provide them than the design community.

As this site and many others prove on a daily basis, this is in fact a legitimate audience. There is money to be made catering to the interests of the world’s designers, and countless sites are designed specifically with this group in mind.

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As an example, take the recent redesign of Inspiredology shown above. This is a site created by designers for designers. Consequently, it’s heavy on eye-candy. The header is a beautifully goofy piece of art that always grabs your attention for a few seconds no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

As you scroll around the page, you can see that the quality of the visual appeal is carried on throughout the design.

The difference between good and great design from the designer’s perspective is therefore simple: aesthetics. Put two websites in front of a professional designer, ask him to choose which is the best and chances are that you’ll see the prettier site chosen over the uglier alternative.

It’s simply the way we’re wired. Our knowledge of aesthetics isn’t something to be scoffed at — it’s what makes us valuable. If everyone could make something look beautiful on their own, we’d be out of a job. Attractive graphics have the unique ability to capture the attention of people who would otherwise be uninterested in taking the time to hear what it is you have to say.

However, possessing the ability to see past pure aesthetics is an important aspect to understanding truly great design. Which brings us to our next perspective: the client.

The Client’s Perspective

Unfortunately, not all designers can create primarily for the delight of other designers. In fact, only a tiny percentage of designers can enjoy this luxury. Most are forced to satisfy different types of people whose thought processes drastically differ from their own.

I used to spend my days working for a major marketing company designing dog food ads. Sounds fun, right? There was no one to ogle at my typography or compliment the complex layouts that I was forced to pull off in record time to meet deadlines; only a group of suits with bigger paychecks and zero design training who possessed expert knowledge of how to sell the product.

In this situation, focusing purely on aesthetics won’t garner you a single "great job" or "atta boy!" In fact, corporate advertising — be it print, web, or video — is infamous for an age old battle between creatives (the designer types) and marketers.

The creatives argue that customers will choose the product with the most attractive graphical representation.

Marketers counter by suggesting what customers really want is to have their demographic and psychographic needs addressed while forming a lasting connection with the brand (make-the-logo-bigger mentality).

This same dilemma carries out of corporate marketing offices and into the relationship between freelance designers and small business owners all over the world. The guy running the local auto shop doesn’t care if you win design awards for creating his website, he just wants it to be effective in driving customers into his store.

The difference between good design and great design from the client’s perspective is whether or not the product you’ve provided meets the goals that were originally presented. Though one of these goals is bound to be aesthetics, it is often the case that the final product is a less-attractive but more on-target version of what you originally presented.

As an example of a good client-focused design, consider the site below.

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Here we see both perspectives at work. First of all, the designer has created a really great-looking site (not stunning or overly original, but attractive nonetheless). It’s bright, colorful, friendly and quite easy on the eyes. However, if you stop by the site you’ll really get a feel for how much information has been placed on the home page. This is undoubtedly a marketer at work (notice that it is in fact a marketing website).

Here the client needed to present a lot of information and the designer’s job was to do so in an attractive manner. Given complete control, the designer would’ve likely moved a lot of the text to another page — but ultimately the two sides worked together and were probably both forced to compromise a bit to create the finished product.

The User’s Perspective

This is where the ultimate goal of both marketing and design come together in either a harmonious or chaotic attempt to incite and/or facilitate a desired action. The difference between good and great design from the user’s perspective is that one paramount piece of the puzzle that trumps everything else.

When a design finally hits the real world, stereotypes go out the window. Real people don’t fit into the neat little boxes that we try to put them in. They’re complex, unpredictable and each one different than the next.

Some users will care a great deal about aesthetic appeal, others won’t give it a second thought. Some users will analyze every grammatical nuance while others will barely scan a few words.

In the realm of the web, the one thing that ties all your users together is whether or not the design is functional. From the perspective of the user, a great design is one that works. If they can jump on your site, locate the information they want and perform the actions they need to without getting confused, misdirected or frustrated — you’ve won them over.

As much as we designers love to criticize their profound lack of design, Google is the king of this category.

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Whether or not you think Google’s strategy is appropriate, the fact is that they currently own 65.8% of the search market, with their competitors Yahoo! and Bing trailing behind at mere 17.1% and 11% respectively[1].

A main contributor to their rise to the top was the simplicity to which they clung to for so many years and are only just now starting to relax in response to those gaining competitors.

This example proves that most people want to use a search engine to do just that: search. And when you look at the iconic Google page, there is no mistaking how to go about this task.

Google users don’t want a bunch of superfluous art or lengthy marketing ploys to distract them, they want the search bar.

As crazy as it sounds, in the case of Google, great design can be attributed to the lack of design.

Bringing It All Together

From peering into the three unique perspectives of the major participants in the professional design world, we can create a picture of what great design really looks like.

To the designer, great design is beautiful design. A significant amount of effort must be placed into making the product attractive.

To the client, great design is effective. It must bring in customers and meet the goals put forth to the designer in the original brief.

Finally, to the user, great design is functional. It’s easy to read, easy to use and easy to get out of it what was promised.

It’s important to note that the lines between the three perspectives are not so clear-cut. Many marketers will care a great deal about aesthetics, many designers will hold effectiveness in high importance and many users will be keen enough to pay attention to all three variables.

Truly great design, then, is when these three perspectives are considered and implemented equally to create a final product that is beautiful, effective and functional.

Keep in mind that the product must be a synergistic realization of the three perspectives and not merely contain elements ideally suited for each. The design must be attractive enough to catch a user’s attention, the message strong enough to communicate effectively to the user and the functionality simple enough to cause the user to take action.

Example: Kaleidoscope

To see what great design looks like in practice, let’s look at an example of a site that’s gotten a lot of attention recently (for good reason). Below is a screenshot of a website for the Mac application, Kaleidoscope.

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First, let’s think about the designer’s perspective. Is the site attractive? Absolutely! The colors and graphics are amazing, the typography is classy and the subtle animation in the logo (stop by the site to see it) is pure designer bait.

Further, the single-page site is broken up into five unique but cohesive sections, each with their own wonderfully attractive appeal (two of these sections are shown above).

Now let’s think about the design from the client’s perspective. In this case, the app developer and the site designer were probably one and the same, so the designer-client relationship has a bit of an unfair advantage!

However, if we consider the marketing interests of the creators of the app, they are in fact represented well. To effectively sell the app, the developers would’ve wanted a site that strongly conveyed what the purpose of the app is as well as the features present to get the job done. Also important is a sense of value to entice the customer to make a purchase.

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One of the first things you see on the page is the headline "Compare files with Kaleidoscope." This instantly conveys what the app does (compares files) and is reaffirmed by the bolded text in the sub-copy, "spot the differences." This is of course followed by an entire section devoted to each feature of the app. Finally, the value statement is conveyed with the claim that Kaleidoscope is the "world’s most advanced" application of its kind. Even stronger is the statement that the current price is introductory, conveying a sense of urgency to the customer.

To top it all off, let’s think about the site through the eyes of the user. It is attractive so it pulls us in, it’s effective in conveying its message to us about what the app is, but is it functional?

There are three primary things that a user would want to do here:

  • Download the app
  • Buy the app
  • Find out more information about the app

As you can see, both the "Download" and "Buy" buttons are prominently displayed near the top of the site.

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Also notice that the price of the app isn’t hidden (it’s 29 euros) on another page as with many Mac application websites. This is a critical piece of information to the user and the developers aren’t making you work to discover it.

Finally, if the user is unconvinced and wants to know more, the thumbnails at the bottom are quick links to the section of the site corresponding to that feature. Here they find screenshots, video tutorials and detailed explanations so they can be fully informed before making a purchase decision.

Simply put, this is great design. Not because it’s attractive, not because it’s effective, and not because it’s functional — but because it is all three.

The Gist

The difference between good design and great design is not a simple matter of implementing all the right colors, illustrations and effects. Great design is, instead, what results when the perspectives of all of the key players are appropriately considered and reconciled in a synergistic fashion.

Aesthetics, effectiveness and functionality are equally important and together comprise your ultimate goal as a web designer.

References

  1. Yahoo Swipes Search Market Share From Google

Related Content

About the Author

Joshua Johnson is a Graphic Designer/Web Designer with over six years of experience working with a major international marketing agency. He is also the Editor of Design Shack, a web design and development blog. Check out his recent work and follow him on Twitter: @secondfret.

43 Comments

Conor

September 7th, 2010

Great article mate, cheers for the read!

Joel

September 7th, 2010

Spot on article – Pretty design is nice to look at, but if it doesn’t accomplish the goals it needs to, it’s just eye candy.

Niubi

September 7th, 2010

The most important thing about the design is that it is coherent – you know, form follows function and people can easily find what they want – the DubLi website is an excellent case in point in my opinion. Too many people focus on either looks or content – both are different sides of the coin and need to be equally balanced.

Scott

September 7th, 2010

In order to be considered a designer one should create designs that are attractive, functional, and effective.
If a designer’s focus is merely to make something ‘pretty’ doesn’t that make he or she a decorator, not a designer? (I guess I think all designers should fit your definition of a ‘great’ designer)

Anterpreet

September 7th, 2010

Nice article, we must consider the user while creating the design.

Kristie

September 7th, 2010

Nice article. Thanks. It’s always helpful to think about this big game of balance.

Duane

September 7th, 2010

I agree with you to a degree but I’m with Scott on this. Great designs ARE “functional and attractive”. But at the end of the day, any designer with good training aims for that at minimum. A designer that cares only about aesthetics or even mostly about aesthetics doesn’t understand what it is designers do.

Herbug

September 7th, 2010

Excellent article

Bryan Moreno

September 7th, 2010

Wow, awesome article. As a newbie on webdesign, I’ve always seen this discussion about aesthetics vs the user’s needs vs what the client wants, but always been treated separately. You’ve put it all together, and I had an epiphany reading this article. Made so many sense the union these three concepts is about! Thank you for the mind-clearing.

Greetings from Brazil!

Joshua Johnson

September 7th, 2010

Scott and Duane, great feedback but you’re only focusing on a single aspect of the article. The point is that designers often give too much importance to ANY of the three aspects. Some designers favor aesthetics, but others focus on functionality or meeting client goals so much that the finished product is quite ugly.

You’re right in suggesting that all designers “should” fit my definition of great, but the question is whether or not they meet the criteria above on a per-job basis. Designers often struggle with a project that seems lackluster and it’s helpful to have some explicit criteria on hand to weigh the design against to see where it’s suffering.

Thanks for the comments!

Mark @ Alchemy United

September 7th, 2010

Good one. Thanks! And my two cents…

Design – any and all design – exist with context. In the world of business those contexts would be brand and expectations. It’s impossible to evaluate the success (or not) of a design without understanding both of these vectors. Pun intended :)

As mentioned, there’s more to it than aesthetics. In fact, what makes great design great is that aesthetics is a means, not an ends in and of itself. God knows there are plenty of aesthetically pleasing sites. The question is whether or not a design is right for the context.

Amair

September 7th, 2010

Top article and well worth the read.

Getting business to give you the time to create great design would be very nice…

urssur

September 7th, 2010

I read every single word … I lie, but I did read more words here than on any other page I have been on today.

Captivating stuff, and good choice of example websites.

kapsarovb

September 7th, 2010

“From the perspective of the user, a great design is one that works. If they can jump on your site, locate the information they want and perform the actions they need to without getting confused, misdirected or frustrated — you’ve won them over.”

Bravo… sharing is caring :)

Joanna @BOCOCreative

September 7th, 2010

A really enjoyable article. And you are right, designing “eye-candy” websites is a luxury for most of us. Cheers!

Tyson

September 7th, 2010

Keep up the good work.
Even if you don’t agree 100% with all the info Joshua has given atleast he has got you thinking again about how to structure your designs.

Hopefully it leads you to come up with something new to through in the mix of your next design

brixter

September 8th, 2010

Designs? Why not design according to your heart? You’ll see the results when you finished it. Then apply minor modifications here and there and then validate it. Voila! Share it for free.

Illiya Vjestica

September 8th, 2010

Hey Joshua,

Thanks so much for featuring our website. You were spot on in your assumption, both my designer and me (a marketer) worked very closely on the project together and ultimately there was some compromise between us.

For me the key to ‘great design’ is working with a designer who understands a clients needs and a client who understand the designers needs.

I’m luckily to have worked with web designers for 5 years prior to starting my own company and I know what’s required from a good brief. It also helps from the client’s perspective if you have a good understanding of design concepts and principles, it is not an essential but if you can explain your idea easily to a designer the more chance of it getting transformed into something fantastic.

Unfortunately, I see there are far too many occasions where the client has no idea how to talk, brief or explain their ideas to a designer and the end product looks poor. Not the designers fault, just that the client didn’t take the time to understand the designer needs and give them the information they required.

Illiya

So Interactive

September 8th, 2010

Well done great article, you have covered some valid web design points.

Thomas

September 8th, 2010

Excellent article. In fact that’s the thing that pisses me off on deviantart.com. It seems just everyone designs pretty stuff, that will never appear live and isn’t functional, just pretty. Instead they critize your design, only because they look over with the astethic point

Andy Colclough

September 8th, 2010

Some really interesting points made here. The examples you have given explain the points really well. Design should not only look great but it should also fit its purpose. Of course this isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

How do people get inspiration? Any other blog links of quality designs, they would like to share? This is the main way I get my inspiration

Thanks

Ben Matewe

September 8th, 2010

Great article. Using this as a reference point one can not go wrong.

Pedro Couto e Santos

September 8th, 2010

Hi, cool article, but I mus disagree with your choice of “what great design looks like in practice”.

Looking at the Kaleidoscope name, choice of huge, overpowering illustration and overall look I was convinced I was looking at a website selling a colour picker and palette application for designers.

Never in a million years would I have guessed it is in fact a file comparer.

Kaleidoscope tells me “colour”, “pattern”, “randomness” and the gigantic graphic of a colour spectrum really appears to have absolutely nothing to do with file comparison.

Further: this idea was so marked in my first few looks at the site that I thought this was actually a webpage for 2 different apps: at the top, Kaleidoscope, a colour app for designers, at the bottom, TextScope, a text-comparison app for coders.

It made sense – one app for the visual part of your work, another for when you need to code it.

But, apparently, that’s not the case, right? Kaleidoscope is the app and it just compares files? Or… what?

I’m confused, making this a very pretty, but not particularly great design.

In my humble opinion.

Rupnarayan Bhattacharya

September 8th, 2010

Great article, as a web designer I have faced the situation where the design looks beautiful but client did not like it because he thought there was not enough information. At first I was angry but after some time I realized he is right, the site is made for business, there is no use of a good looking site if the user did not click the buy now button. Truly balance between look, usability and functionality is very much important.

Ayush Kumar

September 8th, 2010

A design should both be functional and visually pleasing, in my opinion.

A great article! Thanks a lot.

Mark @ Alchemy United

September 8th, 2010

@ Pedro – FWIW, I agree with you. And thus my post prior about the need to know and understand context (before a judgment can be made). Cheers.

krike

September 8th, 2010

great article :) thanks for sharing

Will

September 8th, 2010

Superb article, thank you very much!

Amy

September 8th, 2010

If we as design professionals were faced with 2 websites and asked to choose which one was best surely we’d engage our brains before dumbly pointing at the prettiest one!? Don’t we look at stuff through the eyes of our clients and our users and develop an aesthetic for that project? Surely that’s how to create great, attractive, effective and functional design. With regards to the ‘lack of design’ you mention in respect to google, I would say that leaving stuff out is as much ‘design’ as what you put in. Often the difference between an amateur and a professional is knowing when to stop.

Sarven Capadisli

September 8th, 2010

Funny that the author finds the typography at Kaleidoscope “classy”. It uses Helvetica for starters and it is anything but classy. It is for the masses! Not to mention that Helvetica is originally based on Akzidenz-Grotesk (read: a rip-off). So much for recognizing and commenting about type (in this case typography) design.

Andrew Dertinger

September 8th, 2010

Awesome article Joshua! Thanks so much for including the new Inspiredology redesign as an example. And the header still continues to grab me too :)
Cheers.

andres g

September 8th, 2010

nice article ;)

Craig

September 9th, 2010

Great article, agree the trick is to find that right balance.

Amy

September 9th, 2010

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, Joshua! You had me from the word ‘functional’. For work to be functional, the designer must perform the duty of research. In addition to a respectable relationship with a marketer and client…what a wonderful world THAT would be.

Edwin Sandoval

September 9th, 2010

Excelent article, I think that is missing the perpective of the web programmer, because the functionality of a site is an part that need to be thought before to do the design.

Mike

September 13th, 2010

Nice read and well thought out.

You just have to look at the wealth of beautiful but ultimately short lasting flash sites that have sprung up over the years.

Full of icandy but actually hard to use and most don’t keep your attention for more than a few minutes.

I have recently done alot of usability testing on a website and even though i thought i had the design nailed it turned out not to be the case and just changing the language of the page had the most effect.

Jasper

September 13th, 2010

Great article. Thanks.

Gigi Skye

September 13th, 2010

I like how you broke out the elements of a great design using Kaleidoscope. It’s difficult starting out and figuring out how to put your stamp on a client’s side but still make it user friendly and appropriate for their clients. I don’t think any site is a “bad” design unless it has no content, no frames, typos, blah photos, etc. It’s all about who’s looking at your site and the feelings it evokes in the viewer. I’m pretty new at this, so, hey what do I know.

Yuriy Romadin

September 14th, 2010

excelent work, good article! Thanks

Carol

September 19th, 2010

This will be really helpful for my career in the future as an Interior Designer.

gino

September 27th, 2010

nice work! To find the right balance is really important

Christian Krammer

October 6th, 2011

Great article, I really enjoyed to read it and actually also learned a few things. Thank you.

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