How do you tell good design from bad design?

I’d argue that it’s obvious to tell the difference between good and bad design. But if that was the case for everyone, then we’d enjoy a world full of excellent websites. 

I believe there are obvious visual and emotional indicators of good and bad design. Let’s start by comparing and contrasting the visual indicators first.

Bad design


We recognize bad design instantly when we can’t tell what the hell we’re looking at and can’t figure out where to go. When print or online media is jam-packed with information, images and icons, order and comprehension is severely challenged. Brand guru Marty Neumeier says, “A wealth of information leads to a poverty of attention.”


Bad design feels like an episode of Hoarders. Being forced to take in tons of conflicting content at once is jarring, confusing and repulsive. Having too many columns in your website will do this. Having too many colors will do this. Having a ton of animated stuff will do this. Having a ton of ads on the page will do this. Having multiple areas of navigation will do this. Doing all of these at once will make your visitors explode.

Clean design


We follow clean design without any questions. We move from point A to point B gracefully and find our way back just as quick. Clean design organizes information logically and gives each piece its own time and space for attention. Clean design often looks attractive and professional.


Clean design creates a sense of understanding, respect and trust. Banks understand this; that’s why they are clean, organized and the tellers are dressed for business. Much like looking for a good place for your money, you want information on your website to be obvious, organized and trustworthy.

So how do you make good design? I would defer to Marty Neumeier’s advice on this yet again:

Good design reflects good virtues (honesty, clarity, courage, substance)… Bad design exhibits laziness, deceit, pettiness and fear.

I would argue that good design starts from and is based on your business’ virtues. Leaving all the cliche and competitor style behind, I would advice using your own virtues as the guiding light for your design. Beyond this, good design is usually gained by way of experience. Align your design with your virtues and then apply the necessary rules of design to make it readable, presentable and unique.

What visual and emotional qualities do you find in good and bad design?