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A look inside what makes (or breaks) good design

Ashley Gainer's Layout avatar

We talk a lot about good design…but what does that really mean?

There’s a lot that goes into a good web design. Sure, the website looks good, it runs fast, and it answers any visitor’s questions.

But there’s more to it than that.

A “good” website does its job

“Ultimately, good web design is web design that works. ” But how do you know it works? That all depends on the purpose of the site.

It’s your job as the web designer to tease out the purpose of each site you design. Every site has its own set of users with their own quirks, needs, and inclinations. You need to find a way to harness as much of that information as possible and then translate it into a great design that is pleasing to the eye, does exactly what the client wants, and presents it in a way that users can navigate easily. When you can do all of that, you’ve accomplished great design.

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So those are some of the facets of good design. Let’s dive a little deeper into the aspects and characteristics of great design. Ignore them at your (design’s) peril!

It’s organized well

Most often, a website’s purpose is to convey information. A thoughtful designer will organize the information in a way that makes sense for that site’s unique set of visitors. The good news is you can get really thoughtful and creative to present an innovative, awesomely structured website. The bad news is there’s no universal answer for how to organize a site because every site contains different information and is used differently by its visitors.

To get a sense of how best to organize your site, talk to the client about how their site is actually used, or take a look at the analytics data yourself. That should give you the story of how visitors are moving through the content and finding what they need – or not.

It looks good

Good web designers are students of aesthetics, and good design is pleasing to the eye. We know what lines look good and where. We understand ratios and scale. We’re sensitive to the emotional signals that fonts and other cues will send, and how those signals contribute to the overall feel and appearance of a site. We have a sense of space, and we know how to position things “just so” to give a desired effect. The colors we choose are pleasing, any graphics or images are sharp, and any animated elements run smoothly. (This is a special skill, and not everyone has it. It’s one of the things that makes designers special.)

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Something jarring, distracting, cluttered, or unresolved – generally speaking – won’t be considered good design. (The exception is when the client wants something a little bit bizarro…but even then, the other rules about organization and content still apply.)

It converts

While conversion goals for every website will be different, most websites will have the goal of some sort of conversion. It may be comments, email subscribers, purchases, or even foot traffic. When you know what metrics you’ll use to measure success, you’ll have an easier time creating (and evaluating) the strength of the design and how it promotes conversion. (Hint: a big part of this will be the call to action.)

It’s responsive

Responsive web design is the way of the future. If a design isn’t responsive, it can’t really be considered great design because it’s failing to accommodate the wide variety of screen sizes that any site’s visitors will use to access the site. There may be some exceptions here, but “responsive” is the general rule.

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It’s intuitive

This is one attribute that can be a little bit tricky to quantify. How do you know when your web design is intuitive? It all comes down to user experience. When a visitor comes to the site, do they know what to do? Is it easy to find the information they need? Does the navigation make sense for that audience? Is the home page delivering the right stuff (but not too much of it)? For a really great breakdown on what “intuitive design” means from a UX standpoint, check out these thoughts from UX expert Jared Spool (a designer, but not of websites).

Keep in mind that what’s intuitive for you, your colleagues, and even your client, might not be intuitive for the site’s users.

The copy is effective and the design supports it

This is part copywriting and part design. The words are written with an understanding of what the site’s users will want. The design supports the purpose of the copy, both overall and in individual elements. It’s just not about having the right words. It’s about having the right words in the right places, emphasized the right way, involving appropriate styles and elements.

There’s some personality

Great web design is engaging. It pulls you in. It might be simple, but it’s not dull. There’s a bit of personality in it. Don’t forget to add in a splash of the “persona” the site is supposed to exhibit.

Final thoughts on good design

As a designer, your approach should be to outdo yourself with each new project. Always be improving. Always be stretching to become better at your craft today than you were yesterday. Otherwise, you’ll fall into complacency, which will quickly turn into stagnation. “Don’t be stagnant with your designs. Strive for growth. Be great! ”

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