Seeing Critically

It is very natural that you might struggle with trying to make sense of the variety of design you see around you. What is good design? What is bad design? This is true for all designers in this day and age, no matter where they live. It is a consequence of our times all around the world. As designers we must attempt to make sense of this visual confusion to try and create meaningful and aesthetically pleasing work—in response to our time. Another thing to remember; all that has been printed/made is not necessarily good design. In fact, I would argue that most of what has been printed/made is in fact bad design. As conscientious designers we must ask why this is true or at least why is there so much disparity between what has been (is) out there posing as design. You need to filter through all that visually confronts you and focus on only what you determine to be the “best” or most meaningful.

Historical examples present a unique problem. You must determine why they are examples in the first place. Is it because of their incredibly beautiful, graceful and meaningful design? Or is it an example because it represents a breakthrough in technological innovation—(a first) or perhaps a poignant representation of cultural influence, unique visual voice, “spot on” in its simplicity, etc.

One way you could approach this question would be to try and separate, by comparison, what is specifically good overall design from what are simply characteristics of technology, time period, stylistic preferences, etc.  What do you notice as similarities? What are differences? Because all design that you see is not necessarily “good”, you must first establish some sort of guidelines for yourself that make any design good or not. Those guidelines should be independent of culture or nationality. but instead are universal.

We have talked about such guidelines in many classes within the contexts of:

  • target audience
  • clear message
  • technology
  • style or aesthetic
  • general design principles of line, shape, value, color, & texture as well as composition, Gestalt principles, etc. By considering how the designer approached any combination of the above criteria, left it to chance, or completely ignored them, you might be able to focus a bit more on the more meaningful works that you see.

Guidelines for Seeing Critically:

Look at the products of design objectively and critically. Try to see how the designer of each has determined or used the following:

  • What is the intended audience?
  • Try to characterize/describe it. How does this determine or relate to the overall style of the ad? (Use of color or B & W, texture, etc.)
  • In what combination of pure information or inspirational/suggestive is the message delivered?
  • Analyze the sequence or order in which information is given.
  • How does this sequence effect the message impact? When is the product actually revealed?
  • What is/are the implied message(s) of the ad?
  • Example: comfort, economy, friendly, exciting, etc.
  • Is symbolism or metaphor used?  How?
  • Is humor used?  How?
  • How does type relate to image?