What is “good” design?

I’ve been designing direct mail (and every other type of print and online communications) for… well… more than 15 years. In this time I’ve learned a few things about what “good design” is.

To this designer, good design is appropriate, methodical, concise, thought provoking and respects its audience.

Be appropriate.

If you are doing a letter – or anything for that matter – that anyone over 45 may be reading, do not set the point size smaller than 12 pt. Period.

Can you go bigger? Yes please. Many eyeballs will be thanking you and perhaps respond by giving (or giving more!).

Another point: Don’t do flashy bells and whistles on your web site unless you are selling flashy bells and whistles – that goes for music too! Be appropriate. Know thy audience and design accordingly.

Be methodical.

Think through every element.

In a stack of white #10 envelopes, what can you do to ensure yours gets opened? Which font will work best? How can you crop a picture to get the most impact? Do you need a brochure to be 4 colour because it will be more effective or will 2 colour do? Do all the elements of a package work together? What do you want the donor to read first?

Be concise.

Get to the point. Communicate one thing. Ask for one thing. Simply, clearly. From the copy, to the images you use.

(If I had a dime for every coupon I see asking for a single gift, a monthly gift, do you want information about leaving a legacy, would you like our e-newletters, can you give us your email, did you know we need volunteers, have you seen our website, have you liked us on Facebook, want to follow us on twitter… yes – I think I have a coupon in my “THIS DIRECT MAIL MUST DIE” box that has ALL of these as comments and options on a 8.5″ x 3.5″ coupon – but that’s another blog post…)

Be thought provoking.

That doesn’t mean scaring your audience or shocking them. Ask for help, make your donor laugh, tell them how their gift will change something, make it better, show them a different side of a common issue.

Respect your audience.

A colleague often told me, don’t be too clever. Tom Ahern recently wrote about writing to a Grade 4 reading level. It is simple to make things complicated, but complicated to make things simple. Ensuring you do all of these things mean you are not confusing your audience, or making them feel stupid because they don’t understand the words on the page and hopefully completely comprehending what it is you are asking them for. Respecting your audience means putting their needs before your own.

A few last points, a good designer designs to make something readable and that communicates. Its effectiveness will be judged by the reader or viewer but hopefully the designer will have taken the time to make it as easy as possible for the audience to act. We do not have “sexify” buttons on our keyboards and we aren’t here to make your turd pretty. As Jen says, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Every element that is added to the “design” MUST make the message CLEARER.

A final observation. Sort of a trick question.

Do you know what, to me, is the most beautiful, gorgeous, breath taking, heart wrenching font in the world is?

No – it’s none of the ones you probably just said in your head.

It’s courier.

Do you know why, to me, that is the most beautiful, gorgeous, breath taking, heart wrenching font in the world?

Because every time I use it, your donors can read it easier, understand it better and give more.

Courier, my friends, is good design.

4 Responses to “What is “good” design?”

  1. Ophelia March 31, 2014 3:31 pm #

    I was excited to discover this page. I need to to thank you for your time for this
    wonderful read!! I definitely appreciated every bit of it and i also have you book marked to check out new stuff in your website.

  2. M Kok August 29, 2013 1:59 pm #

    If printing in 12 pt is so important, why are so many designers now printing in gray instead of black. Even you do this in your blog post, and for older eyes like mine, it’s very difficult to read.

    • John Lepp August 29, 2013 2:58 pm #

      Thanks for the comment! I know in the design work we do, we never print or typeset in gray. 100% black all the time. For exactly the reason you mention. Other designers do it because it looks “slick” – ignoring the fact that is becomes more difficult for people to read. Online – like this post – it is a styling issue as well. The style of this wordpress template has the type set to like an 80% black instead of 100% black. It could be changed, but taking into account our online audience is much different than our clients offline audience, we’ve never considered it. Thank you so much for raising the point though. I really appreciate it. – john

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