Things I learned about visual design

  1. Beauty and function are not different. Beauty IS a function. And it is important.
  2. Beauty is a result of strong relationships between elements.
  3. Visual design can be split into classical aesthetics and expressive aesthetics.
  4. Classical aesthetics are universally beautiful: orderliness, clarity, cleanliness, symmetry, etc. But they’re also boring.
  5. Expressive aesthetics are exciting: flashy sprinkles, bold colours, painterly textures, originality. But they also divide audiences.
  6. Interaction design and visual design are a Venn diagram. There is a lot of overlap between the two.
  7. Visual design has five purposes: attraction, communication, expression, identity, and interaction.
  8. Even the best designers are inspired by the work—software and beyond—of others.
  9. There are no new ideas. Many designers copy other designers and then tweak it to make something “new”.
  10. It’s OK to steal the work of others, but it can go too far. It’s safer to steal classical aesthetics because they’re universal.
  11. Most if not all visual styles are a reaction to something: another style, new technology, an inspiring object, constraints, etc.
  12. Often the best way to think about visual design is to create visual design.
  13. Creativity is easier if you have constraints. Even if you make them up.
  14. Visual creativity is a result of soaking your brain in good design.
  15. Trained eyes find joy in subtlety.
  16. You cannot be “born with” good taste. Anyone can develop good taste with enough active exposure to good design.
  17. You couldn’t avoid developing a personal style if you tried, but it might take longer than you expect.
  18. Visual design demands a lot of rigour. Some people don’t have the patience, or care more about other things, and that’s OK.
  19. A design decision is only wrong in context.
  20. Almost any visual design decision can work as long as you commit to it.
  21. “It feels right” is valid, and sometimes preferred (e.g. optical alignment). But if you can explain why it feels right, that’s better.
  22. Some techniques and patterns are harder to get wrong. Focus on those, early on.
  23. If you make a design simple by hiding things, you’ve swept rubbish under the rug. The room is still full of rubbish.
  24. The last 20% takes 80% of the time.
  25. Both elegance and extravagance are valid, as long as they’re sophisticated.
  26. You rarely get good visual design the first time. Perhaps not even the fifteenth. Iterate.
  27. The more people who have input into a visual design, the safer but more boring it is likely to be.
  28. Small visual design issues (e.g. misalignment) catch the eye. They’re a bigger problem than they seem.
  29. Feedback is vital, especially when you’ve worked on a design long enough that you cannot see it clearly.
  30. Some elements of your design (e.g. centrepieces) should need far more of your time than others.
  31. Elements that take a lot of time or money to make are more impressive.
  32. An element does not need to be noticed to have an effect.
  33. Beauty is hard to justify but impossible to deny.
  34. Content (e.g. album artwork) adds visual interest, so you may not need much else in your interface.
  35. Elements of different types (photography and typography) can still feel like they belong together.
  36. Colour used for practical purposes might be enough colour.
  37. Small visual design decisions (e.g. a button style) can inform the rest of the design.
  38. Content should inform visual design. Visual design should inform content.
  39. Every element offers more than one opportunity to reinforce the concept.
  40. Trends are popular but do not last long.
  41. Variety is interesting.
  42. The more elements you add, the harder visual design becomes. Every element you add creates many more visual relationships.
  43. Good typography, layout, and colour can take you most of the way there.
  44. If you want visual interest, you can add more elements. Or you can change the elements you already have so they’re more interesting.
  45. Your design does not need many centrepieces.
  46. Software is rarely seen all at once. Strong motifs are useful to maintain visual relationships.
  47. The more a person will use your visual design, the less expressive it should be. Expressiveness can grate over time.
  48. Usability and beauty are sometimes at odds. That’s no excuse to go too far in either direction.
  49. Ideas will often work in your head, sometimes work in a sketch, and rarely work in a mock-up.
  50. Visual design involves many rules. Some designers don’t notice them.
  51. If a design is good, it probably follows some rules. Even if one rule is “broken”, another probably applies.
  52. If you want to “break a rule” you should have a good reason to do so. And appreciate that the good reason probably represents another rule.
  53. Some designers cannot share what they know because they learned through action and it’s second nature to them.
  54. Some elements are supposed to attract attention. Some elements are not, but still do. Reduce these distractions.
  55. It’s best if visual design techniques have an anchor in reality.
  56. “This doesn’t match my expectations” is a valid way to grab attention. Cutting something’s anchor to reality is a way to do that. But do it on purpose.
  57. Bigger things should have more detail. Smaller things should have less detail.
  58. “More flashy stuff” is the easier way to have visual interest. “Make no mistakes” is the harder way to have visual interest. You can do both.
  59. Every style has value, but they also often have common emotional associations that you should be aware of.
  60. Good visual design is about balance. If you increase one thing, you might need to decrease another.
  61. You can learn valuable things about visual design if you take things you instinctively like and try to understand your instincts.
  62. If something is absent (e.g. colour), it will have much more impact when it is suddenly present.
  63. Some visual techniques work better against a dark background (e.g. lighting effects) and others work better against a light background (e.g. shadow effects).
  64. If you’re not able to do something well, it’s sometimes better not to do it at all. The presence of something mediocre will look worse than the absence of something.
  65. Beauty won’t make them come back forever. You need something more.