There is no such thing as bad design, only design in the wrong context. I don’t claim this as an absolute rule: “design” is broad, so if you’re talking about architecture or even user interface, there are functional concerns that override “context.” But when it comes to visual and graphic design, and branding, my claim is that this is the frame of mind you should be in.
For an illustration, read Mike Lacher’s I’m Comic Sans, Asshole. Told from the perspective of the maligned font, Comic Sans sets the record straight: I’m fun, lighthearted, and in the right context - I’m the best. “I bring levity to any situation. Need to soften the blow of a harsh message about restroom etiquette? SLAM. There I am.” Now, even Lacher’s Comic Sans personified would admit - there’s places it doesn’t belong. An important memo. A press release. And so on.
Woefully misplaced designs can - of course - fail at their mission, even comically so. That’s what we usually mean by bad graphic design: the logo that looks retro when its context demands up-to-the-minute, the upscale restaurant whose sign is too casual so it comes off as corny.
So why not just call it “bad design”? Because moving beyond “good” and “bad” is helpful for a successful design process. If “there’s no such thing as bad design” sounds like an excellent cop-out for a designer who has just disappointed you, you’re not wrong. But bear with me.
For the designer trying to satisfy their client, “good” and “bad” in themselves are information-free value judgments. Also, “bad” ideas may be interim steps on the way to “good” ones and vice-versa. The product of a design process involving multiple people requires communication, collaboration and feedback to mature.
Looking at completed projects it is easy to say “good” or “bad” but when trying to get to “good” from zero - “good” and “bad” score a 1 on a quality feedback scale from 1 to 10. It’s not worthless, it’s just too binary. It leaves the designer to guess what’s behind the thumbs-down.
Good feedback for a designer is rich with detail. That includes what you might characterize as objective observations as well as subjective judgment calls. An observation would be something like “I see the letters look close together, but in this example website they are spaced further apart,” which would probably be paired with a judgment call like “that looks more readable to me.”
This is not to put it all on the client. Yes, the client needs to put forth some effort and thought. But it’s incumbent on the designer to know what to ask for, and to ask for it. The designer themselves can set the wrong tone by poking fun at “bad” designs, which is good for a rapport-building laugh with a client, but does nothing to create the atmosphere of nuanced analysis and generosity that the designer may need to rely on later.
Unless they are coached into something more structured or in-depth, how is the client supposed to know that their intuition - their gut sense of whether a design is “good” or “bad” - is not enough? Designers themselves live by that intuition, despite having supplemented it with education and seasoned it with experience.
We all know when something lands, when it just looks or feels right. And after all: the client is usually the true creator of a design project or at least, a collaborator. If it just intuitively feels “good” to them, sometimes that’s enough.
But by going beyond the poles of good and bad, opening up the whole toolbox of language to try and describe what it is that that moves us about a design, we bring in the possibility of more meaningful teamwork between client and designer.
And also, pave the way for a basis of trust and respect so the designer can leverage their own expertise to help the client reach the audience they want to communicate with: the end users, the readers, the prospective customers or donors or supporters of a cause - the people that the client is trying to address.