So you’ve started a redesign of your website (or logo, or brochure, or living room, or whatever). You’ve hired a great web designer (or interior designer, or architect, or whatever). How do you know if they’re doing great work for you?

We can’t talk about how good it is unless we know what design is.

What is Design?

Design is something you do in Photoshop while wearing a black beret and twirling your waxed mustache in contemplation of the nature of beauty.

No!

No, no, no.

When you create something that solves a problem, you are doing design. A page layout presents content that is intended to create a specific response or action. A logo tells the viewer something about the nature and philosophy and personality of a brand. A checkout workflow helps people give you their hard-earned money. An elevator moves people and their things hundreds of feet into the air. A car takes you from city to city.

Design that doesn’t solve a problem isn’t design. It’s art, or perhaps a hobby.

Recognizing great design

Design has purpose

If you’re designing a desk chair, it should make you comfortable sitting at a desk for long periods of time. If you’re designing a chair for McDonald’s, it should be comfortable for about 15 minutes, and make you want to get up around the same time you finish your Big Mac, fries, and frozen dairy-like dessert.

To evaluate whether a web design is good, consider its purpose. Maybe it’s encouraging users to download a software demo. Or to register for a conference. Or maybe you want to re-invent how your brand is seen. Or make it fast and easy for homeowners and renters to sign up for cable.

Design can be evaluated objectively

By which we really mean, it meets the design objectives.

By its nature, creative design involves applying principles and guidelines to fuzzy situations. Those decisions may seem subjective, but to a good designer, they aren’t. You can (and should!) ask “Why is are the corners rounded?”; the answer should be something like, “Rounded corners direct the eye towards the center, while sharp box corners direct the eye towards the box itself.” (Yes, I can cite that.)

Does a design meant to generate leads actually generate leads? Then it’s good.

Does a design look great but distract from the content? Then it’s bad.

Design has no room for ego

Once we acknowledge that design objectives matter, then we derive a simple corollary: it doesn’t matter what you prefer. It matters that the design works.

If a design achieves its objectives, then it is good.
The better it achieves its objectives, the greater it is.

If you “like” a design, you’re doing it wrong.

Designs don’t have to be liked. They have to solve a problem. The only valid criteria is how well they solve the problem.