Part 3: The Difference Between Good & Bad Graphic Design


Judging the quality of Graphic Design is always pretty subjective. Usually, people have differing opinions over what they like and why they like it. Because of this, it’s hard to say definitively what the difference is between good and bad graphic design. Hopefully, this article will help. We’ve done our best to provide a few pointers to help you assess the artistic and technical merit of the graphic design all around you.

Target Audience

The first element you will need to consider as you are looking at Graphic design is the audience a piece is speaking to.

Look at the piece and do your best to put yourself in the shoes of the audience it is attempting to capture.

  • Does the piece employ imagery, colours and words that appeal to the target audience?
  • Does the message make sense? Is it clear?
  • If you aren’t in the target audience, pretend you are. Does it motivate you?

Here’s an example for you to look at. Advertising agency MacLaren McCann was recently commissioned to revitalize Market Mall’s image, and produce a campaign that would “aggressively pursue female shoppers.” Have a look at these two print ads and ask yourself if it does a good job getting the attention of women:

Market Mall ad by MacLaren McCann
[Text caption: "Women everywhere are shopping the New Market Mall"]

We think the ad works perfectly.

Make sure you assess the target audience carefully before passing judgment. Sometimes you might just be in the wrong audience.


If the design piece you are judging uses photography, look closely at the pictures. In the case of good design, here are a few good rules for assessing imagery:

  • The image should be clear and crisp, without any pixelization or unintentional blurring.
  • The colours in the photo should be tied in with the rest of the piece *
  • The photo or image should be relevant to the overall message.
  • The focus of the photograph should be clear, unless it’s meant to be an “ambient” image.
  • The picture should be original and fresh, not taken from another source.
  • The photo or image should be the work of a professional: well-composed with a good sense of balance.

Look at this screenshot from the FedEx/Kinko’s website. This is a good example of how to let the colours of your photography work together with your design. The prominent colour in each of the photos is purple, which works great with the purple colour scheme used in the website.

FedEx/Kinko's website screenshot

Be careful of stock photography – that is, generic photos purchased in bulk from large image libraries. Typically, designers will rely on stock photography to provide cultural or societal relevance, or to zero in on a certain audience. Stock photography works well in many situations when budgetary resources prevent designers from commissioning original photos, but can sometimes look out painfully out of place. Keep your eyes open to these classics: smiling faces, helpful receptionists, busy office workers, generic skyscrapers, or tropical destinations.

Photography and imagery should be as original and as specific as possible. Generic-looking photography can be a sure sign of generic-looking design work.


Colour is vital to design. Used well, it can be immensely powerful: colour can suggest feeling, inspire emotion, and align itself with certain principles. For instance, green is often used to represent the environment or a social conscience toward nature. Colour is also very important for direction, and these types of associations are built into modern civilization: green means go, red means stop.

Good designers take full advantage of the power of colour, and the psychological and physiological effect colour has on us. As Tina Sutton and Bride M. Whelan write in their book The Complete Color Harmony, “Colors have such strong associations that even a black-and-white rendering of a brand’s logo instantaneously calls specific hues to mind. You don’t read Coca-Cola without thinking red, [or] see Wal-Mart’s smiley face without thinking yellow…”

Using smart visual cues can provide direction and enhance communication. When you are deciding if a work of graphic design is good or bad, here are a few questions to ask:

  • How does the colour make you feel? For instance, the colour blue can often make one feel cold, while green can create a feeling of calm.
  • What are the existing connotations brought up by the colour used? Do these associations enhance or destroy the message?
  • Is the colour used consistently? For instance, if a particular shade is introduced in the logo or the main image, is it continued throughout the rest of the piece?
  • Are the colours used harmoniously? If the design piece employs multiple colours, make sure that colours match well, and don’t create awkward clashes.


This might sound crazy, but words are for more than just reading. The shape and appearance of a word can say as much as the word itself can. That’s why it’s important to use fonts well. Here are some rules

  • How many different fonts are used? Count them. If there are more than three, then the design piece is dangerously close to being labeled bad. Good graphic design usually employs consistency and restraint in choosing fonts: one for the headers, one for the body text, and a third for special accents. Any more, and you risk losing your audience in a sea of confusing textual clutter.
  • The use of fonts should be imaginative, original, and purposeful. Fonts are often a great opportunity to add life to a piece of Graphic design. If a work is using common fonts like Arial, Verdana, and Times New Roman, that instantly loses a few points for being boring and uninspired. Those fonts are great for e-mail and letter writing, but don’t attract attention or provide much excitement.
  • Look for fonts that mix well with the message. Serious communication requires a serious, authoritative look. Weird bands that usually play late at night in obscure locations require fonts that are confusing and hard to read. This seems to be a general rule.
  • Look for correct usage of Serif and Sans-Serif fonts. A Serif font is a font with small “feet” on the letters. Times New Roman is a Serif font, and is well suited to body text, as the feet on the letters help your eyes to follow along the words. Almost all published books use Serif fonts, because it’s easier on the eyes. A Sans-Serif font like Arial does not have “feet” ,and is a good headline font because it’s big and bold and calls out from a distance.

Fonts should be easy to follow, and should attract your attention. Hopefully, a designer will choose a font with a personality that fits well with the other elements of the project. When this is done properly, the message is powerful. When it’s done poorly, the piece will struggle to say what it means.


When you are looking at a design piece, your eyes should be drawn through it in a way that provides you with relevant information almost instantly. Effective design will assist you in being informed without being overwhelmed.

A good designer knows this, and consciously places information and design elements where they need to be. Here’s how to tell if a good designer has been at work on the layout you’re looking at:

  • Your eyes are naturally drawn to the most important or most interesting part.
  • You are able to scan the piece and understand what it means, without having to backtrack or scrutinize it for hidden meaning (unless that’s the point).
  • The key information is easy to find, and easy to read. Important items are larger, while less important details take up less space.
  • There are no needlessly distracting elements on the page.

Good layout is carefully engineered for usability and readability and will be easy to interact with. Bad layout is tedious and disorganized.


Finally, your gut feeling is most of the time the best indicator of whether design is good or bad. Having carefully dissected a design piece using the principles discussed above, how does it make you feel?

Good design would have spoken clearly and concisely about something you understand on a subconscious level before you took the time to digest the information. If you felt invited to look, or encouraged to continue, that’s positive. If you weren’t provided with positive subliminal signals, this might be an indication that this particular design isn’t working very well.

After logical dissemination and a concerted effort at objectivity, make sure you trust your judgment. It can give you an idea of whether every element used in a design works together harmoniously.

On with the Series: ERD 101
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

This helpful article was brought to you by the knowledgeable people at Elbowroom Design, where better communication means better results.

  • Juliana Luz

    I’m still a graphic design student and this really made me think about it. I study in Lisbon and recently a great Mall called Dolce Vita opened a new branch here and to announce their new cinema they used a poster with a lot of white spaces, well organisated typefaces but using a image of a elephant and just that with the sentence “Cinema in weight”. Not just we had no idea they was talking about cinema but the elephant is already is already associated by the portuguese people to a market company called Jumbo. I got confused because this was a big propaganda to announce the opening of a very important Mall wich is supose to be the biggest in Portugal. I started to think what was really the intention doing that because nobody that i asked knew that propaganda was related to a new Cinema.

  • Hotspot

    The New Market Mall one is hilrious! Too bad I dont live around there, with all the women gone and just the men… A homosexual guy like me would fit right in >:3

  • teddy

    this is a really helpful site thx

  • David Paul

    In this article, very well describe about the good or bad graphic design which are very helpful for the freelance designers.