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What makes visual design effective?

21 Aug 2018 by Brian Slade

Visual design

The surprisingly simple idea of ‘clarity’ will invariably unlock the answer to the question of what makes visual design effective. Clarity of understanding based on the accessibility, usability, and desired activation for the primary audience that the design is intended for. If clarity doesn’t completely unlock the answer, it will without doubt get the designer in the right space.

This may not sound like a design theory ‘go to’. It almost sounds more like a side step: bounce the problem back to the client or the brief author to provide more information. However, until the designer has clarity on the audience, their ‘profile’, what makes them tick, sit up and take notice, they’re going to be reliant on their own personal bias and preferences. And that’s dangerous because we’re often not the audience. So more than a nominal stab at this, it is essentially going to be the first thing to get right in creating effective design.

Beyond the brief, day after day we’re flooded with information, products, services and decisions to be made. Effective visual design principles have evolved over time, from the early cave drawings through to today’s virtual realities. The eye and mind need space to work out what’s being communicated.

Until the designer has clarity on the audience and what makes them tick, they’re going to be reliant on their own personal bias.

If everything stands out then nothing stands out. As designers, we need to create a visual path and hierarchy based on what we believe will stimulate the audience to be engaged and activated. This doesn’t mean a boring solution. This means we need to think, not only analytically but creatively about what will push the right audience buttons - and not necessarily those of the internal corporate client hierarchy who have their own bias and preference. Chances are they’re not the audience either.

Scan, weigh up, select, digest. Composition is vital.

A designer needs to be a master of information architecture and navigation. If you’re a client assessing a proposed design, think about what the designer has crafted. Allow your eye to scan. Very few people read all the information you’re providing at first glance, like body text. Think smorgasbord. Scan, weigh up, select, digest. Composition is vital in assisting the primary audience in navigating the information. An underlying grid will create structure and form. 

Look for the underlying presence of classic, proven design rules: consider the appropriate application of the rule of thirds where designs are segmented into nine equal sections and key information is clustered into one of the top or bottom left or right segments. Balanced ‘golden mean’ mathematical proportions developed by the Greeks and used to create the proportions for the credit card just feel ‘right’.

Yet, unbalanced visual design that can either break, or appear to ‘randomly’ conform to, underlying grids can also be the right ‘feel’ for the audience. It can work because it creates tension - a totally valid tool in stimulating a response that draws the eye to a specific element of interest or desire.

Graphics, colour, images, shapes and text selection will all be based on how the designer wants the audience to feel and assist them in navigating the information. Selected audiences will respond to each element based on demographic-specific preferences. 

A designer will often contrast elements to create emphasis, scale and pace and will never ignore the eye’s need for ‘white space’. The eye and mind needs a rest from the flood of information. Sometimes you need to create your own white space in a crowded environment, so as designers, we often simplify things to get noticed rather than try to shout louder than the crowd. 

So, next time you’re assessing a piece of design from your agency, look beyond the surface to the considered architecture beneath.

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