It’s really a good question that gets asked a lot. An especially good question since even among prominent graphic designers the answers differ. The simplest definition I can supply is: Graphic designers organize information. Simple as that.

The type of information varies greatly (from text to graphs to charts to photographs to artwork to illustration and more) as does the quality of organization of the given information.

The quality of organization is translated as “good design” or “bad design” depending largely on aesthetic preferences, but also on general laws regarding readability, hierarchy of information, typeface and color decisions.

These laws and aesthetics get translated into Advertising (Corporate Logos, Advertisements, TV Commercials, Consumer Packaging, etc..), Editorial Design (Magazines, Newspapers, etc…), New Media Design (Websites, Interactive CD-Roms, Software Interfaces, Video, Digital Animation, etc…) as well as a host of other design outlets.

So now that we’ve defined Graphic Design, what makes something good design or bad design?

Is it well organized?
– Is the information you need to know locatable?
Is it eye-catching?
– Did a word or photo catch your eye? Was it intentional?
Does the overall look of the piece mesh with the purpose of the piece?
– Would you really use bright orange in a tourism ad for Alaska?

There’s lots of invented rules that designers like to throw around. Rules like “Never use more than three fonts” or “stick to the Rule of Thirds.” Rules like these are invented because despite popular belief, the more rules – limitations – standards – guidelines in place, the easier it is to design within them. This is how trends in graphic design get started.

You have a magazine debut in the early 1990’s like RayGun which breaks all the rules of conventional design. Paragraphs of text are turned upside down. Page numbers are in the center of the page. Text runs over photos. It was ground-breaking when it first came out. Then everyone and their grandmother began to mimic the RayGun style. Most of it was never close to the quality and detail that RayGun labored for. The style became old and stale and eventually died because only the best designers can create something spectacular without any rules.

Sometimes a designer will get the dream project. The client walks into the office and says, “Hey Stan, we need a poster to promote our new product. Go nuts!” Now, normally what happens next is sad. Stan throws all his normal rules out the window and takes it too far. He presents the client a poster that is unorganized, visually displeasing and missing the point of promoting the new product completely. The client hates it and poor Stan doesn’t understand where he went wrong and is forced to set some new rules for himself as he redesigns it. It’s a hard lesson for a young designer to learn.

I’m wondering if you’ve ever come across something where you stopped and said to yourself, “Self, this is an awesome design!” or, “Self, what were they thinking??” Tell me about it.