How to reinforce intuitive design decisions?

I am not a professional designer, meaning: I have not studied Graphic Design at university or similar. I wanted to, but the numerous clauses didn’t allow it.

On the other hand, I’m actually doing graphic design since the age of 15. And, compared to what I see from other people with a comparable background, I’m doing quite well.

My problem: while I can usually feel that things have to be placed, styled, laid out, typed or colored in a specific way, I have absolutely no clue why.

What would be the best way for people like me to learn the reasons behind the intuitive decisions I make?

Since this is a rather unwanted opinion-based question in general, the following points are supposed to make it a nice StackExchange-compliant question:

  • I can only learn in my free time. Do not suggest full time studies like going to university. (I have to work in parallel to earn money to feed my kids, right?)
  • I prefer learning at random speed, e.g. repeat things if I didn’t understand it. And maybe do nothing for a period of 3 weeks because I’m on a business trip.
  • Cheap or gratis learning is preferred.
  • I think there is already a list of good design books somewhere else, so skip that.
  • Other than books, the type of learning doesn’t really matter.
  • In the end of the learning phase, I should be able to tell my colleagues the reasons why I change things, e.g.
    • “don’t use red here, because it means danger”
    • “don’t use more than 3 different fonts, because …”
    • “make the distance equal, because …”

Today my reason is “because it looks ugly”, but people don’t feel so comfortable with that explanation.

What solution am I thinking of?

  • It’s an online training
  • It displays designs and I need to answer what I would change
  • The website tells me whether I’m correct. Like a game maybe.
  • The website tells me the reason why it’s correct and offers a link to read the theoretical background. (Beginner mode)
  • In the next step I have to give the reason as well. (next level)

I’m not sure if something like this (or better) exists. And since I’m a non-native English speaker, I have no idea what search terms I would need to use to find such a thing.


It’s tough to imagine a website or game that could do this effectively. Even in school it seems there are only “hard” answers (i.e. right or wrong) for the most obvious examples, and the rest is critiques from multiple people speaking from multiple viewpoints.

Of course, those may even change over time, since good design tends to go back to cognitive psychology and social/learned schemas. “Breaking the grid,” for example, may have been wrong in the 70’s, but right in the 80’s.

Personally, I’ve learned the most from hearing experienced designers critique other work, or when they explain their own work. It was definitely a learning process, and the first step was not assuming the melange of fancy-sounding words were just complete BS.

Also, I find I get better at explaining good vs. bad when I read about the cognitive aspects of design. Understanding these fundamentals allow me to speak broadly about how a design element fits (or doesn’t fit) into common visual schemas. It may come down to simply communicating feelings rather than a full understanding of design principles, which is something that just requires practice, in my opinion (based on my experience).

In practice, I often refer to an elements visual hierarchy vs. the intention of the full work. For example, if a logo is too close to other elements, I may say it confuses the importance of the logo vs the other elements. Or if multiple, related elements have strange proportions with each-other, it might reduce the cognitive effect of repetition, thus decreasing the strength or impact of a design.

To abstract it out a bit, focus first on the intention of the design. The intention is most often communicated through a visual hierarchy, which again is based on cognitive schemas that we share as humans (like red means danger, etc.), or physical constraints (like wide paragraphs make our eyes tired). Then compare that intention with the execution in terms of visual tools, such as size, repetition, proportion, or contrast.

With this approach, the books or blogs you read become tools for communicating design, not just for understanding design. For example, you may say a text block feels too busy because it’s disproportional to other elements, and then reference Bringhurst to explain why that is a bad thing in your situation.

While you may not be a beginner to design, I often recommend The Non Designers Design Book to people who need an easier way to think about design. The book does a great job of simplifying design into a few categories with simple rules to follow. It won’t make good design great, but it can make offensive design non-offensive. In your case, it may simply give you an easy way to talk about design with non-designers.

Last, here’s a quote that I use as a touchstone when evaluating my own designs. It also helps with the tendency for non-designers to want to fill in white space, or “make the logo bigger.”

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sure, it may sound pretentious, but since there is a common stereotype (mental schema) that good designers are pretentious, perhaps it will help you convince someone without actually having to explain the design. :p

I hope that helps!

Source : Link , Question Author : Thomas Weller , Answer Author : goodship11

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