lealea's blogblog

because it's nice to say it twice

17 Comments // Filed in Featured / Business / Design / Web

Can you justify design decisions?

It’s interesting that while many of us rant about how some of our clients don’t understand the choices we make in a project, it’s startling to see that a lot of “designers” out there don’t understand their own choices, either. It’s making design decisions without justifying why something is placed somewhere, or choosing things almost “instinctively” or arbitrarily.

Yes, great designers definitely have a sharper eye than most, but a lot of their choices are less “instinctive” than most people realise — there is research involved, education in design history, various projects under their belt, etc — that helps designers make better decisions that seem “automatic.” You don’t necessarily need to have a formal design education background to grasp and apply universal design concepts that fiddle with line, space, proximity, colour, type, and images; that, on top of figuring out context and relevancy to the audience and the times.

And yet, there’s this strange reluctance I’ve noticed in designers trying to justify their decisions without resorting to the age old “it just looks good.” If you’re an artist or hobbyist, or you’re doing something for fun, that excuse may fly, but in a professional industry: no. Clients can be fickle, and if you don’t have strong reasons to back up your design, you could quickly fall into the quicksand that is multiple client revisions with no purpose. Justifying your design decisions helps establish yourself an authority on the subject.

A good exercise to help hone your critical design thinking skills is to take one of your favourite site designs and break it down. How can you break it down? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Count and write down how many typefaces and styles the site uses
  2. Recognize the size differences between the type elements
  3. Ask yourself why they chose those specific typefaces (e.g. Serif generally is more authoritative and old-fashioned, while sans-serif has a more contemporary flavour)
  4. Identify “decorative” or superfluous assets that enhance the design
  5. Identify “decorative” or superfluous assets that hinder the design
  6. Recognize the colour palette — is it consistent?
  7. Is there a theme or metaphor?
  8. Go through the layout and number each element in the order of importance in the layout. After, see if the way it’s laid out or emphasized is parallel to the priority of information.
  9. Ask “Who is the audience of this layout? Is it appropriate? Why or why not?”
  10. Ask “Is this relevant?”

The above will be a bit of a starting point to help you recognize choices good designers make — and why. Justify your design decisions, and more people will take you, as a designer, seriously.

Relevant Reading

17 blabs to Can you justify design decisions?

Add something to the conversation!

Picture of reese

Name reese

Date Apr 18
02:31 PM

Thanks for the list of things to break down. I’ll use it the next time I analyze a site (though perhaps I already do so instinctively ;) )

I’m not the most “schooled” designer. I had to go back and take some classes to learn many of the things you mentioned in this article. But regardless of my schooling, my critical thinking skills have long driven my design decisions. I don’t always meet the mark—sometimes I have to remind myself to think through my design choices, but what your article really boils down to is critical thinking. I think critical thinking is one of the most vital skills a good designer has in her arsenal. It helps with design decisions, project management and client relations. Learning to critically think on the fly has done wonders for both my business, design skills AND sanity.

Picture of AJ

Name AJ

Date Apr 18
05:49 PM

I agree, and it’s a useful exercise. This definitely seems to be the topic of the month – D. Keith Robinson’s also written about it and there’s similar threads going over at DesignObserver. (I may have to blog about it myself, just to keep up.)

The one thing I haven’t seen in all of this what-is-good-web-design self-questioning is that no-one seems willing to step up and say exactly what is good web design practice, and why. It’s like we’ve leapt from the invention of the printing press to David Carson deconstructed layouts without defining a grammar of classical style, layout, and ornament for this medium yet.

Picture of Andrey

Name Andrey

Date Apr 19
11:40 AM

Completely agree. Design is ability to make choices. And choice is not well made unless it has some informational base under it. Professionals may not think about much about every choice they make because their trained brains already know what’s right and what’s wrong. But they can definitely justify all the decisions. They know why “it just looks good”.

I especially support points 9 and 10. It seems that a lot of designers design for other designers, and not to support the content. It’s a mistake to assume that a design is unsuccessful because it doesn’t blow you away when you first see it. “New and exciting” doesn’t work for every project, but “appropriate and relevant” do. Great write-up, Lea.

Picture of J0sh

Name J0sh

Date Apr 22
08:32 PM

“…education in design history, various projects under their belt, etc?that helps designers make better decisions that seem automatic.”

…That sometimes could lead to disagreements between the in-house design team and the unit head who happens to have no design experience (i.e. he’s also head of accounting or something).

But yeah I second the fact having a solid reason behind your designs can help you avoid piles of revisions would it be clients or your boss…

I think good designers create a system (both visually and conceptually) that really allows things to be self-designed. My best projects are when design choices are simple, logical and strong. I notice when I start “decorating” that my concept is lacking and my grid needs some work.

Great article, it is a very important issue to talk about.

Keep it simple but be original, listen to your clients input, most of the time they know much more about their business than you do. Our job is to advise the client about best practices in graphic design but the customer is always right. Sometimes we need to agree to disagree.

Lealea, you are a star. I have one thing to say about your suggestion that one could learn great deal by breaking down one’s favourite site and see how things have been hyped for maximum attention. What you have not taken into account is the fact that many budding designers have no clue as to why a great site is great. they certainly know it it fantastic but they cannot single out what is so great about it. In other words, one needs to know what to watch out before they can break a site down for analysis. Otherwise, you have written yet another superb article. great work.

Also, your article on http://www.designinflight.com/06February/project_lemonade_creating_beauty_within_chaos.html
is a must read really. Very educational.

Designers, let’s face it, design to woow regardless and it is a mistake. One has to aim for appropriateness and relevance as someone pointed out in the comments.

Thanks a lot Lealea for giving this information and cleared some picture in mind and its interesting

Picture of Timothy

Name Timothy

Date Aug 28
12:32 AM

Designe is not like real art. real art which has when it is good work, goes beyond the soul and tells something profound and important.

Very interesting and a great article. I have long thought about writing down the reasons for creating elements with in a page. Not only to tell clients, but to tell myself and make myself think about it. Definitley food for thought, and I know I need to think about it more.

Picture of Leezig

Name Leezig

Date Nov 07
07:43 AM

Good points : I presume that they aren’t in any order of priority. If they were then maybe 9 & 10 should be 1 & 2 (as already hinted at by Dan Mall)? BTW, like the site generally; clean, simple and easily navigable.

Picture of Thomas

Name Thomas

Date Nov 10
11:51 AM

Very entertaining issue. I haven’t heard of this one. It will be necessary to visit you on a thicket!

Picture of joseph kumwamba

Name joseph kumwamba

Date Dec 27
07:25 AM

if i can justify ,for now i dont have any thing to say .i have long thought about writing down the reson for creating . it very intersting article but i need to think about it more .
this is my first time to writ for UD i love it i wish for you the chrismas in prosperity,peace and joy

Picture of fab

Name fab

Date Mar 07
10:15 PM

Interesting post :)

For sure, it also depends your way of working, if its not just feeling, you should prabably explain why you di a work this way..

But sometimes, clients wants something instinctively, and its so difficult explaining them they ‘re wrong ;) im sure you understand me !

Picture of warren

Name warren

Date Dec 06
02:20 AM

Interesting post Thanks a lot Lealea for giving this information and cleared some picture in mind and its interesting

Picture of Richard

Name Richard

Date Nov 25
06:33 PM

I think your ten points (whilst all correct) perhaps focus far too much on design as “how it looks”, rather than “how it works” – whether the design makes things clear to understand and easy to find.

Things like colour are always going to be down to personal taste, wheras, for example, a constantly changing layout or too much text is going to hinder everyone.

If you haven’t read it, the usability book Don’t Make Me Think is the best book on justifying design decisions I have ever read.


Join the Conversation

Play nice or I'll send you to the naughty corner. Also, please feel free to use Textile to mark up your comment. Use a real name when commenting, or your comment is likely to be deleted.

If you want a little avatar, get one for free at Gravatar.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?