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6 Principles of Effective Design

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A true designer must be concerned first and foremost with what proves to be effective in the real world. As I have studied and applied various ideas over the years, I have learned six basic principles that I believe are crucial to truly effective design.

1. Purpose

Effective design must have a purpose.

Cut through all the extra demands, requests, and details and ask yourself, “What’s the point? What do I want people to do?”

Without good design it is easy to miss the point. — Bjarni Wark

A good design takes us right to the point. It triggers a response of some sort. It inspires and compels people to action. A good design works toward a goal with real content and a clear plan. Design is art on a mission.

Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration. — Jeffrey Zeldman

Design must have an objective; otherwise, it’s nothing more than art. Therefore, design must communicate something. Effective design always has one primary and concise message. Everything about that design must work to make that message immediately understandable.

I don’t start with a design objective, I start with a communication objective. I feel my project is successful if it communicates what it is supposed to communicate. — Mike Davidson

2. Emotion

Effective design must invoke emotion.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. — Maya Angelou

If you don’t make people feel something, you will fail. What feeling does your design convey? What does your design feel like? Does it feel corporate? Does it feel personal? Professional? Happy or serious? Courageous?

More importantly, what do you want people to feel when they see it? Do you want to make them feel safe? Understood? Inspired to greatness? Does your design help create that emotion?

Design must seduce, shape, and perhaps more importantly, evoke an emotional response. — April Greiman

The truth is, we are all emotionally driven whether we realize it or not. We forget the details but we remember the feeling we felt. You must engage with raw emotion. You must make people feel something. You can accomplish that by confronting or highlighting natural human desires and basic instinct.

I’m a big believer in the emotion of design, and the message that’s sent before somebody begins to read, before they get the rest of the information; what is the emotional response they get to the product, to the story, to the painting – whatever it is. — David Carson

3. Relevance

Effective design must be relevant to a specific audience.

I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody. — Bill Cosby

There is no holy grail of design that works for everyone, everywhere, all the time. You’ll need to loosely define the limits of who you are trying to impact with your design.

I’m sure there are fine artists out there who keep the audience in mind when they work. But it’s not the accepted trajectory of the profession. Conversely, it’s very clear in design that what we do needs to be seen an understood by an audience. — Stefan Sagmeister

An artist thinks differently than a designer, so you must never confuse the two. An artist is trying to be true and relevant to themselves. If others understand, then that’s great—but it’s not the goal of an artist. Conversely, a designer understands that art must serve the audience and reinforce the message.

Effective design must be relevant to the audience that you are targeting. To target your audience, you’ll need to understand how and what your audience generally thinks, perceives, and prefers.

The only important thing about design is how it relates to people. — Victor Papanek

Let me give you two additional keys on making things relevant to people. First, people like what they are familiar with. Second, we all learn something new by comparison to something we already understand. In other words, if it doesn’t feel somewhat familiar, or at least related to or similar to something already familiar, people won’t typically connect with it.

The secret of all effective advertising is not the creation of new and tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships. — Leo Burnett

For most people, the unfamiliar invokes distance, hesitation, and distrust. When you introduce something unfamiliar, you’ll either need time and persistence to build trust or you’ll need to relate to or tie into something else that your target audience is already familiar with.

4. Persuasion

Effective design must be persuasive.

As children, we often instinctively learn how to persuade our parent/s to get what we want. Eventually, we also learn that different tactics are more effective on different people. Simply stated, persuasion requires strategy.

Design is creativity with strategy. — Rob Curedale

How will you convince them? First, a persuasive design has as strong concept. This means that it is clear, simple, bold, and powerful. Secondly, a persuasive design is one that is easily memorable.

To create a memorable design you need to start with a thought that’s worth remembering. — Thomas Manss

A design cannot be persuasive if it does not have a purpose, relate to an audience, and appeal to emotion. But a persuasive design also spells the message out quickly in a single impression. Imagine you have one shot; one fleeting chance to grab and convince someone with no time to explain or expound on it. Good design doesn’t require people to think.

There are many tactics of persuasion, but only a few are truly suited for the quick impression. The first is logic or reason. This method gives short, bullet-point reasons explaining “why” or “why not.” It assumes, “If you only knew, you would understand.” This tactic relies heavily on the intellect with details and facts to persuade.

The second tactic of quick persuasion is gain or value. In some sense, it is simply appealing to our natural desires or selfishness. What do I get out of it? Why does this matter to me? This tactic often incorporates testimonies of real or fictitious people to convey a sense of reward. This tactic relies heavily on human nature, instinct, and survival needs.

The third and most powerful tactic of quick persuasion is to boldly instigate emotion. For instance, creating a fear or urgency effectively inspires immediate action. “If I don’t do something now… then what might happen?” It’s giving the sense that you can’t afford to wait to respond. It creates pressure toward the end goal. Designs may invoke courage, decency, patriotism, guilt, regret, etc. Emotion is the bullseye of effective design.

5. Simplicity

Effective design must be simple.

Almost all quality improvement comes via simplification of design, manufacturing… layout, processes, and procedures. — Tom Peters

One of the hardest things to accept is that most people don’t read—they scan until they find something of interest or something that grabs them. Break up your content. Make it easily accessible. Make it scannable. If you do, people will go back and look closer. If you don’t, they’ll never be likely to pay attention to it again.

Accessible design is good design. — Steve Ballmer

An ad should be an appetizer, not a buffet. — Jason Fox

If you can’t make it simple, then you are not sure of what you’re saying . As a result, you’re not saying anything. Until you can make it simple, people are not going to be able to fully hear it. In other words, less is more.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

You must be able to convey the message in one word or short phrase—in a sentence at the most. You must summarize until you find the essence of the message. That essence is what your art must support, so that all together the design gets right to the point.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. — Leonardo Da Vinci

Eliminate not only what doesn’t reinforce the message, but also what isn’t necessary. The most effective designs do not have alternate elements that compete for attention.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. — Shunryu Suzuki

6. Style

Effective design must have style.

When you began reading this article, it may have surprised you to know that the style of design is the last principle, but by now you should understand why. Yet style does play a crucial roll in effective design. You can create two different designs that incorporate all of the previous five principles, and you will find that the style of the designs will set them drastically apart.

The style of a design answers the question, “How will you grab their attention?” But style is not just the creative, artistic presentation of the message; it’s a deliberate effort that ties everything together into one concise thing that stands on its own.

Design is the conscious effort to impose a meaningful order. — Victor Papanek

As you consider the message that the design should convey, remember that images speak more boldly than words. Art should support the message, but art also is the message. The words just bring it out and make it obvious. Effective design is an exercise of show and tell.

Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose. — Charles Eames

Many people think of color when they think of style, but it’s proportion and arrangement that matter the most. In fact, if a design doesn’t work in black and white, it probably won’t work much better in color.

Color does not add a pleasant quality to design—it reinforces it. — Pierre Bonnard

Extra Advice

In the end, if you want to get paid for your work there’s one extra principle that trumps them all: the customer is not always right, but your customer is the one that’s willing to pay for your work today. If they’re not willing to pay for your work, then they are not your customer.

So as my friend Chuck Peters always says, follow the money. You can always put in extra work to pitch an alternate design that you recommend, but make sure you give them what they are willing to pay for.

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