How do you know when a design is good or bad? When the design is “pretty,” that means it’s good, right? So what does “pretty” mean? How do you know that your pretty isn’t your boss’s ugly?

Evaluating design quality can be subjective, and the criteria can change depending on the type or purpose of the design itself. But at the end of the day, designs are created to communicate a message and achieve specific outcomes. Looks are an important factor in this, but they alone won’t tell you if the design is effective.

Geek characters flat illustration
Are you a good judge of design quality? Illustration by Daria V.

In order to know whether your design is a winner, you need to understand the elements of good visual communication and judge the design against those rather than abstract, gut feelings. With that in mind, here are a few questions to consider when evaluating graphic design quality.

1. Does the design fulfill its purpose?

Let’s start with the basics: what does the design need to achieve? If it’s a logo design, it needs to represent and communicate a brand’s name. If it’s a landing page design, you may be trying to persuade users to click the “Purchase” button or sign up for an email list.

Design is all about solving problems with visual solutions—that’s why you need to make sure it presents all of the relevant information to communicate the message or compel the reader to take action. Content is still king, but you’ve got to strike the right balance between educating your audience about your brand and not overwhelming them with too much information in one design.

Two Robots landing page
Landing page design by FaTiH™

For example, the purpose of the landing page design above is lead generation and brand awareness. It includes links to all relevant information about the upcoming product, with the most visual emphasis on capturing potential clients’ emails. It’s simple, effective, and solves the problem of engaging users by capturing their emails before the product launches. If a design achieves its most basic goal, then it’s an effective one.

2. Is the message easy to understand?

Experiment book cover
Design by Meella

A great design will ensure your message is instantly readable by guiding your audience’s eyes through the content. Good designs have a focal point such as a large, heavier headline (like the title on this book cover here)—something to catch a viewer’s eye and draw them in.

The visual hierarchy of a design determines which elements they should be looking at in what order. Most cultures read from the top of a page from left to right, and many designs (like Turbo Tax’s website below) are created with that in mind.

Above all else, your text needs to be legible, with well-executed design principles and typography to ensure your viewers can read it quickly and easily. In this digital age, our attention spans are shorter than ever, and most people will stop looking at a design if they have to work too hard to find the information they need.

An image of Turbo Tax's home page
via Turbo Tax

Typography mistakes, like using too many fonts, poor visual hierarchy, bad typeface choice and not including enough white space, will make your design look less professional and harder to read.

Finas Vegan Vietnamese Cuisine menu design
Menu design by sonics.lab

It might be tempting to ask your designer to fit as much text and images on a design as possible, but research has proven that including more white space actually increases reading comprehension and usability. Layout grids, contrast, alignment and strong hierarchy in the menu design on the left make it look polished and easy to read.

When determining if your message is easy to understand, keep in mind the need to balance form with function in a design. Yes, you want your design to look good, but it won’t be effective if form distracts from the message.

A lot of great design is invisible and not overtly pretty but very effective. No one would call Craigslist the most beautiful website in the world, but the design is useful and easy to understand and they’re an incredibly successful company as a result.

3. Is it aesthetically pleasing?

This is probably the most subjective part of evaluating graphic design. What is appealing to one person might be hideously ugly to another. However, you generally want your designs to look beautiful because this will help them make a more professional and credible impression on an audience.

Spotify’s “2017 Wrapped” campaign
Via Spotify’s “2017 Wrapped” campaign

Aesthetically pleasing designs will always have a great layout, composition and color scheme, like the designs in Spotify’s “2017 Wrapped” campaign. Accompanying a brilliant, personalized campaign were beautiful images that were engaging and easily shareable. The pictures of the artists as focal points, visual emphasis on personal stats, the clear composition, and bright and harmonious color scheme made for a beautiful design.

If you think a design “pops,” it’s probably because design principles have been used effectively. The movie poster design below grabs your attention with emphasis on a high contrast image of its protagonist, a balanced and symmetrical composition, great use of white space and all supporting text and images directing your eye to the center.

Poster for short film Sparks!
Poster design by subsiststudios

Good design should be timeless, but it can be useful to take advantage of a trendy look in more temporary designs like posters or flyers. If it’s a logo design, though, you want it to be long lasting, avoid overused trends, and not look dated in a year.

At the end of the day, aesthetic trends will come and go no matter what you do, but don’t get so lost in vying for a certain look that you lose focus of differentiating yourself and communicating your brand.

4. Is the style appropriate for your audience?

Most of the time, you’re not designing for yourself—you’re hoping to create a design that will appeal to a specific audience. They won’t always be able to explain why a design resonates with them, but they’ll have certain expectations for how a design should look.

CTBH Partners LLC website
Web design by Mike Barnes

A rainbow-colored palette wouldn’t be appropriate for a finance website because most clients are looking a for a consultant that is reassuring, by-the-book and trustworthy. Therefore, a more conservative and understated tone (like the design above) is more appropriate.

Conversely, research shows that children prefer bright colors, so it makes more sense to appeal to them with more colorful designs.

Cosmic slime DIY kit label design
Label design by SOMA design dealers

5. Is the design original?

While nothing is truly original, it’s important to avoid copyright infringement, strive for creativity and make your brand stand out from the competition.

The meaning of “originality” depends on the type of design you’re dealing with. If it’s a logo design, you better make sure it’s as unique as possible because you need to be able to trademark it and your trademark application will get rejected if you use a copied design or one that looks too similar to an existing design. Even big companies like Airbnb’s have had to deal with coincidental trademark similarities like that.

Automation Anywhere and airbnb logos
Via Venturebeat

It’s difficult to create a brilliantly simple and distinct logo design that doesn’t look similar to any other existing designs because so many ideas have already been taken and registered as trademarks. If a designer creates a logo that looks similar to an existing design, it’s not necessarily because they copied it—it’s because there are some logo concepts that are really common and possible to arrive at independently of seeing those designs. This is why you need to research other designs in your market and avoid overly generic designs.

Unicorn audio logo
Logo design by ludibes

“Originality” also means trying to include a little bit of creativity in a design, like a clever concept that evokes your brand’s services. The logo here doesn’t just look great, but also cleverly combines the unicorn and sound concepts for this audio shop with great execution.

Other types of design like banner ads or brochures may include photos, and it’s not always practical or cost-effective to hire a photographer to shoot custom photos for you. That’s where it makes sense to use stock photography—which isn’t original but will enhance your design. Just make sure to purchase the right license for the stock images you’ll be using to avoid any copyright issues.

Handmade Soap Club web design
Web design by dandyvasanth with stock images of lavender sprigs

It would be great to have the complete creative freedom and technical resources to make the most creative and out-there web designs but it’s important to remember that there are also a lot of important web design conventions that users expect for an intuitive experience with a design.

Some would argue that true originality doesn’t exist and that everything is a remix, but it’s important to at least try to strive for a design that’s as creative and original as possible in order to add that element of delight to a design or stand out from the competition.

Design quality is a collaborative effort

Great design can do great things for your business, but it won’t do miracles. It doesn’t matter how “good” your design is if you’ve mailed your flyers to the wrong customers or aren’t using the right messaging with your audience. A good design won’t be effective if your product is bad or messaging is flawed, and likewise a poor sales performance isn’t always a reflection on your design quality.

Basic Brand Book cover design
Branding package by Ian Douglas

There are a lot of ways to measure the performance of a design in the real world, like A/B testing web pages, product focus groups, social media engagement and sales. However, not everyone has the luxury of testing a design before they put it out into the wild.

This is where you should take advantage of the expertise of your designer, many of whom have experience in marketing and brand strategy as well as design. A great designer will explain their design decisions and lend their expertise on how best to implement a design. If you’ve gotten this far working with a designer to create a beautiful, custom design, make the most out of that collaboration to bring your design to life out in the real world.