Quantifying (well, almost) the subjective realm of commercial art

Let’s begin with a philosophical principal that most people agree with: art is subjective. One man’s “Mona Lisa” is another man’s “Dogs Playing Poker.” While nearly everyone has their own version of “good” art, and some are more vocal about enforcing their own standard, art itself is, in fact, completely subjective. The general public may tend to confine the concept of art to one of a handful of traditional mediums, but the modern study of art has demonstrated that it can be as simple and non-traditional as the display of untouched everyday objects.

Millions of girls adored the Back Street Boys,
but you’d have a hard time finding a music critic who screamed along with them.

So with that understanding, there simply is no such thing as “good art,” because the inherently subjective nature of art disallows that kind of measurement. It is only “good” by any one person’s subjective measure: “this art is ‘good’ to me.” It is therefore also irrelevant to measure art’s value by how popular it is – many millions of teenage girls adored the crooning of the Back Street Boys during their heydey, but you’d have a hard time finding a notable music critic who jumped and screamed along with them.

What is
Bad Design?

That which can be decreed “bad” in design does not necessarily inform what can be decreed what is good design, but there are a handful of habits that most career designers have agreed are nearly always ill-advised:

Stacked Type: thankfully, this relic of 40’s and 50’s era signage is now all but relegated to deliberately ironic spaces. Stacked type, which is to say, letters that are stacked vertically on top of one another (without rotating them to form a sideways word), destroys legibility and eliminates one of the fundamental necessities of good typography: kerning, the deliberate spacing of letters. The characters of our language are not shaped to flow vertically, and arranging them in that way leaves awkward gaps in the horizontal spaces around smaller characters like ‘i’ and ‘l’. Clumsy + gimmicky = bad idea.

Non-Kerned Headlines: there’s a reason that the font you’re using in that document doesn’t look quite as right as a headline, and it ain’t the font (well, not necessarily). Our eyes require a certain degree of space between characters in order to efficiently metabolize them, but that space is not constant – it’s relative to the size of the characters. Larger characters need to be brought closer together in order to feel balanced and professional.

Inch/Foot Marks in Place of Curly Quotes: okay, so the author of this article is something of a hypocrite on this rule, only because applying curly quotes to website text is incredibly tedious (it requires a unique special code for all four iterations: “ ” ‘ ’ ). But you’ll have a hard time finding the same mistake in his printed pieces. Much in the same way that grammar police cringe at the misuse of quotes, designers cringe at the use of ‘ and ” where proper quotes should appear. Those curls are visual indicators of what’s happening; a quote is starting here, a quote is ending here. Castrating your quotes by using inch and foot marks is a no-no.

Gothic Typefaces: if you’re desiging a website for a garage metal band or a brochure for a Renaissance festival, go to town. Otherwise, pick something else.

However, when we move into the territory of graphic design, sometimes known as commercial art, measurement of popularity becomes more relevant. While most designers would take offense at the assertion that their career is a strictly utilitarian one (most people would concur that some degree of artistic acumen is needed to be a successful designer), few would assert that design could be thought of as a purely aesthetic or expressive art form. Graphic design is, at its core, driven by commerce.

So that’s one fairly tangible measure of “good design”: how popular it is, as measured by how well it promotes its subject matter (which, of course, is usually measured in dollars). But is that the bottom line? Here again, this extreme is unfair to those who live and love design, for those are the people who pour their heart into breaking the rules and bleeding the edges of design, the artists who appreciate the inherent visual beauty that the general public will often not comprehend.

These two sometimes dissonant goals (beauty vs. money) can be unified into one fairly logical form of measurement: how well does the design achieve its goals? After all, that’s what it all ultimately comes down to regardless of the medium; how well was the artist or designer able to meet the goals that applied to their project? If your goal is only to make money, then profit really is going to be the only relevant gauge. If the goal is strictly aesthetic, then money is irrelevant, and the only question is whether the design is pleasing to its target audience.

For working graphic designers, most projects fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. A “good design” is going to be one that demonstrates both a firm grasp of business goals (branding, budget, target audience…) and a keen study of visual composition (layout, typography, color…). The ultimate measure of success is simple: good design, frankly, is what works.

Who else has asked the question?

Takes on this topic from other qualified sources:
AIGA: Good Design in the Digital Age »
MetropolisMag.com: A Good Argument »
Potent Design Services: What constitutes good design? »
Graphic Design Blog: Is There Really Good Design or Just Opinion? »

Whit Gurley
Whit Gurley is the owner and
chief design geek at AEI.