What makes for good graphic design?
This question torments me and drives me as I develop social media ads, value prop diagrams, brand guidelines, thought leadership content, and every kind of image under the sun for our clients at Extra Mile Marketing.
As someone who was novice in the Adobe suite just four years ago, I often lean toward complexity, sophistication, and skill as the key elements in a good design. I think, “my designs are trash because there’s a better artist than me somewhere out there.” But the Sistine Chapel of LinkedIn ads isn’t always going to get you qualified leads.
More often than not, good design communicates instantly and effectively with your audience.
I came to this realization during a nonsense online pictionary-style game the EMM team plays during our daily huddles. The game is simple: pick a word, draw it, and try to get as many people to guess your word before the time runs out. Seems easy at first—draw stars if the word is “night,” for instance.
However, communicating through design isn’t always as straightforward as you’d expect. On the same coin, you’d be surprised by how effective a horrible drawing can be at communicating a message clearly and quickly.
Here’s some samples from our most recent game.
I’ll be honest, my first guess was “hulk.” The clubbed hand instantly reminded me of the hulk hands I grew up torturing my siblings with. But my second guess was spot on. Sure, the…uh…proportions are off…but the point of the design is crystal clear: blue line running through an arm = vein! In my view, this image proves that a bad drawing that communicates clearly is better than an amazing drawing that has nothing to say.
One trick of the game is that everyone is watching you draw in real time, and the faster they guess the right answer, the more points you get.
This image has a pretty dead giveaway—the red flag is synonymous with U.S. mailboxes. However, the artist started with the black rectangle and line. As they were drawing, most people assumed it was a flag of some sort, or a building. If the artist wanted more points, they could have drawn the red flag first. Astute observers would fill in the rest of the mailbox themselves.
This nuance of design reminds me of creating logos. Often, the client wants everything they love about their brand stuffed in with their company name. But a more effective route is to rely on one single icon or shape that prompts the audience to fill in the rest of the story on their own.
Now, if you can’t guess this, something must be wrong with you.
I mean, it has all the essential parts of what it’s trying to convey—a tail, legs, whiskers—c’mon! I think it’s obvious to all of us that this image depicts a rat.
Okay, maybe it’s not so obvious. We often see clients fall into this trap—especially in how they design their website. They have every piece of their business reflected, with tabs for every industry served, a blog page and news page, a demo page and an interactive solution page, and yet, nobody can figure out what it is they actually do!
They forget to start with a simple, memorable story. Look back at the picture above. What if the artist had decided to draw cheese instead? Maybe with a thought bubble around it. Now they’ve told a story about the subject, planting the question in their audience’s mind, “who thinks about cheese.” Then, the answer truly does become obvious.
I love this game we play, and not just because I’m ridiculously good at it. I love it because it exercises my design brain and thrusts me into the audience’s position, guessing what my colleague could possibly mean by drawing a hotdog next to a red barn.
That’s where any good designer, storyteller, marketer, or salesperson should live—in their audience’s shoes. It’s the only way to make sure your message will resonate and translate through all the noise of our 21st century lives.