What Separates Great Design From Good Design

I've collected a few thoughts on what it takes to go from producing not just good design, but great design.

I love to speculate on what makes great design possible, because design is an integral part of my job, and I try to look at great work on a daily basis. So, what’s the difference between good and great in my book? My standards for great are high enough that, I consider it difficult for most designers who produce good work to take it to that extra level.

What great design requires.

It can be difficult to explain or quantify what separates great design from good design, because a) sometimes it’s subjective, and b) it’s mostly the small details that make the difference. Attempting great design often requires more time, and more trial and error, but it often boils down to a few requirements. Here’s a few:

Inspiration from the right places.

Sometimes there is no need to be either clever or original.” — Ivan Chermayeff

Actively seeking out and learning what is great design is fundamental to what you aspire to. It’s all about finding the right source of inspiration. When you absorb the right inspiration and apply it, the improvement will become apparent in your work. It’s not impossible to create something entirely from your imagination, but it’s far easier to draw from great work that has paved the way.

There are enough sources of inspiration out there that you can easily access at any minute, from your computer or phone, to examples in physical places that it takes one to be very selective about the sources, and the types of work that influence a direction.

Knowing the needs of the communication.

Innovation in design is usually a wonderful byproduct or direct result of a particular need. Design that seeks to foremost be innovative will commonly fall apart under its own stylistic girth.” — Jason Santa Maria

The most important aspect of great design is the communication. It is better to consider what the communication needs, than what you—the designer needs, or even what the client needs. With that mindset, you can create a purposeful playground where you can let rip with innovations. You have the catalyst to deliver the best possible version of that need, or beyond, and that is what makes great design great.

Sometimes there are determining factors that are out of your hands. Nonetheless, great designers should know when and how to push back on obstacles. It’s not just about taking the resources you have and making it look good, it’s about going beyond that and delivering the needs of the communication effectively.

Thought behind what you don’t see.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Often, great design is about the space that isn’t used, and the lack of, rather than the complexity of something. For most designers, it’s harder to design minimally and with restraint, because there is a fear that they’re not designing enough. But in reality, less is more. In other words, the less there is, the more focus on elements that are there.

Here’s a question: how little can you have in a design and get away with, while maintaining sufficient communication and style? What you can’t see affects what you do see.

Refining, finessing, and fine-tuning.

Moderation in all things, including moderation.” — Petronius

The finer details make all the difference. In fact, you cannot produce a good design, let alone a great design without this mindset. This usually means fine-tuning the spacing, scale and positioning of elements in a layout. The concept is done, but it needs that extra care and minor adjustments to push it over the line. This is usually the case when producing just good design. Great design requires a little more focus and decisiveness.

Timing of when to make refinements is also key. Often, inexperienced designers get stuck into finessing a concept too soon. Broad strokes should come first. At the point you think a concept is complete, that is when you start refining.

A small amount of perfectionism is healthy, but with moderation. It’s important to a step back every once in a while to refresh your creative eye. Staring at a design too long can cause you to lose clear judgment. In that scenario, it’s also easier to get bored of a design and evolve it beyond the point of keeping a clear, subjective view.

Finding the flaws, no matter how small.

Design is as much a matter of finding problems as it is solving them.” — Bryan Lawson

In the refinement stage, finding flaws in your design always requires complete honesty with yourself, and it’s usually the minor ones that tend to fly under the radar. But finding them, no matter how minuscule they may seem, is often the best approach to refining and improving your work.

I’ve found that showing the work to a colleague or someone you respect can immediately reveal or accentuate any flaws, even if they don’t point them out to you. This is because you become more self-conscious of every detail. Ultimately, constantly noting and fixing issues in one’s work is what great designers do, and are good at.

Learning from previous mistakes.

Every new thing you make will be (should be) the nicest thing you’ve made so far.” — Jessica Hische

Hindsight is a beautiful thing, and almost every project I do ends with a sense of what I could do to improve it the next time around. Being honest with your flaws and learning from them, no matter how good a designer you are, is probably the most powerful asset a designer can have to keep pushing to reach the next level.

By Christian Miller  |  Follow me on Twitter