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Good Design Is Never As Easy As 1-2-3

We like rules. Rules bring order to our world. Rules give a prescribed list of steps for what needs to be done and how to do it. We like to think that if we simply follow a set of “x” rules then we will be rewarded with “y” results. No muss, no fuss.

We like tools. Tools help us do stuff. Tools provide the means to execute and build something — they are also highly learnable. We think that with a little practice, we will soon be able to produce the same things that others produce with the same tools. Practice makes perfect.

A lot of the world works this way. We follow a recipe and with the right ingredients, the result is a delicious rib roast. We follow a schedule of required courses and with the right amount of credits we earn a degree. We follow the instructions from IKEA and once we match them up with all the pieces, we soon have a nice new set of bookshelves (albeit, a missing screw or two).

Art is different. Rules may help us learn and guide us to craft something nice or produce a facsimile of something we like — but it’s usually just another mediocre “whatever it is.” Paint by numbers.

When it comes to something more, rules leave us wanting. The basics are good to know, and “rules” are good guideposts, but nothing very compelling was ever produced by just following the rules. Indeed, breakout work requires breaking the rules.

Designing for the business world also requires more

Much more. Design for branding, marketing, and any type of visual communications is a blend of art, business and science (with a healthy dose of psychology thrown in). Design doesn’t come from tools, software or the dime-a-dozen apps so readily available on our phones these days. Design that commands attention, is on-brand and gets a response isn’t found in a book or a box — and you can’t simply log in for creative intuition. Design that brings real business results only comes from talent, training and experience. Years of it.

In this age of hyper-blogging, pop-marketers and link bait headlines… “5 Easy Steps This” and “10 Quick Ways That…” we are barraged with quick fixes and promises that all you need to do is read one hot blog post or sign up for the latest webinar or ebook and success will soon be yours. Oh… we soooooo want to believe this. After all, we all want the magic ticket and it’s the culture of awesome, right?

But then we realize, of course, there are no shortcuts to success.

Rules have a place and everyone loves a hot tip, but they only skim the surface. This has never been more true than when it comes to design.

Let me explain…


There are so many how-to’s and manuals on the steps to good design, as if all one needs to do is follow a recipe to bake a good design. Well, it doesn’t quite work that way.

Even experienced pros fall into the trap of mimicking the tools and techniques of someone they admire and want to emulate. There may be educational value there, but it can also be the road to becoming the next cheap knockoff. Much can be learned from tracing someone else’s drawing — but it will always be just that, a tracing. Nothing more.

Shape, line, texture, scale, contrast, proportion, balance… these are the building blocks of design and are all important. Typography, photography, illustration… but more important than all that is HOW it’s done. Is symmetry inherently bad? Is justified type a no-no? What about small white type on a dark color? Should the design be flat or dimensional with drop shadows? Simple or busy? These types of matters are discussed and debated all the time, and the latest trends will undoubtedly contradict last week’s trends. But what really matters is, is it good and does it work?

Practical concerns: How will it look big? Will it hold up very tiny? Can it be etched? What about embroidery? Does it speak to my audience? Is it affordable?

Context is everything.


It’s widely understood how different colors affect us emotionally and even physiologically. Science backs this up — blue makes us feel calm, red gets us excited, black makes us somber… but that only takes us so far.

Vastly more important is how those colors are used and in what context. Colors are affected by other colors around them.

I’m sure you’ve seen many exciting designs with black backgrounds where bright colors pop off like a ball of energy. That is anything but somber. Black can also express elegance and sophistication — far from anything foreboding.

Say yes to good design and tango through the clutter.Red is energizing, but it can also be ghoulish for it is also the color of blood. Pair it with black, and it can be powerfully stimulating. It could remind one of Russian constructivism or even the Third Reich, but black and red also happen to be the colors of Milton Glaser’s iconic I Love NY logo. The feelings and memories that colors arouse all depend on context — externally and internally, for we all bring our own experiences to how we interpret the world.

The Cleveland Browns have notoriously ugly team colors — by popular consensus, brown and orange are no match for the aqua green and orange of the Miami Dolphins. But tell that to a Browns fan. That’s their team, man! And loyal fans are color blind when it comes to their teams — what matters more is this almost symbiotic relationship of those colors to their team. The colors associated with a particular brand matter.

Practical concerns:
Will a color be legible if printed on another certain color? How will it reproduce in print vs. online? What about fabric? All are different but important considerations when it comes to working with color.

Context is everything.

Putting them together

Design and color together produce a creative cocktail where any variable can vastly impact the outcome of the finished piece. Now any rules prescribed for each have become even less relevant, because… context is everything.

Throw in the added complexity of having to make the design communicate something, for marketing or other communications purposes — and the additional elements of audience, target market and brand have been introduced. All will impact how people respond to your overall design, and how both color and design will be used to reach your desired goals. Words are added. Sorry, but a trivial list of rules just won’t suffice, and the superficial results will not only be ineffective but could also be downright detrimental to your business.

Good, effective design is not something to be taken lightly. The talent, practice, training, experience, passion and yes, intuition of a dedicated pro will get your design and your business where it needs to be. And sometimes that means breaking the rules.

Featured image courtesy of Nesster via Creative Commons.
Photo illustration work: Paul Biedermann, re:DESIGN

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