No-one talks about polish

Polish is the not-so-secret fourth pillar of visual design, after typography, layout, and colour. It factors into nearly every design, but hardly anyone talks about it.

For these reasons, polish was where I started with my obsession with how to improve my visual design. While you can buy books about the other three pillars, there are very few books about polish. The best I’ve come across is Refactoring UI by Adam Wathan and Steve Schoger.

In short, polish covers all of the visual design techniques you can use to make your design look better. It’s small touches like drop shadows, gradients, hand-drawn elements, and more. Similar to shoe polish, it’s the final layer on a visual design.

The purposes of polish

Shortly after I became interested in polish, I started to collect examples of techniques visual designers used to polish their designs. I put them all on a website, Better UI Design.

One thing that isn’t covered on that website, however, is why these polish techniques are used in the first place. When I looked through all of the techniques, I realised there were thirteen reasons that we polish an interface:

  1. Add visual interest
  2. Improve visibility
  3. Separate content
  4. Connect content
  5. Guide attention
  6. Reinforce visual hierarchy
  7. Reinforce layout
  8. Reinforce brand
  9. Reinforce a theme
  10. Soften the interface
  11. Signify affordance
  12. Signify state
  13. Simulate reality

You’ll notice that these purposes generally help the three main pillars to be achieved, but they aren’t critical to them.

If you want to be a good visual designer, it’s important to be aware of techniques that you can use to achieve all of the above. There are so many small tweaks and additions you can make to a visual design to take it to greater heights.

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