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I'm a new designer (sort of) and I'm wondering how you guys fix a design that just doesn't feel quite right. When you've been working on a design for a while, you can get the feeling that one of many things are wrong but you are too close to spot it.

I'm sure it varies from design to design but is there a checklist of things you would go down? e.g. type, alignment, contrast etc. ?

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4 Answers 4

Get a fresh pair of eyes to look at it.

"Too close to spot it" is exactly the problem. You've got obstructive arborvision (you can't see the forest for the trees). Find someone else to look at the design — preferably another designer, but anyone with a good eye will do in a pinch. If you have no one to lean on, you could try putting it away for a few days and coming back to it the way writers do when self-editing, but designers rarely have the luxury of that much time.

The problem with a checklist is that you might go down each item and end up re-making or re-justifying your design decisions, and those decisions may be the root of what's wrong.

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+1 obstructive arborvision Took me a moment... –  Farray Oct 27 '11 at 16:47
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It wouldn't necessarily hurt to ask anyone ( Even those with no eye for design. ) Someone without any design experience can still point out things.. especially practical things. After all usually 'everyone' views these things after it's finished, whatever it is. –  Joonas Oct 27 '11 at 16:58
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If you don't have another pair of eyes to hand, and haven't got much time, you could try printing it out, looking at it upside down or in a mirror, or sticking it on a wall and looking at it from as far away as possible. –  e100 Oct 27 '11 at 17:05
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the mirror things sounds crazy but it works. One technique I learned in fine art school is to use a reducing lens (the opposite of a magnifying glass). This reduces paintings to miniature format and you can only see the big movements. The computer equivalent is to zoom way out and turn off all your guides etc. –  horatio Oct 27 '11 at 17:18
    
and BTW, it is probably your margins are too small ;) –  horatio Oct 27 '11 at 17:18
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Ten ways to shake up your brain:

  1. Chop it up in to pieces and see if you can figure out what's wrong that way. Then reassemble them, possibly not in the same arrangement.

  2. Try changing one pervasive thing, e.g., color, and see if that helps.

  3. Hold it upside down.

  4. Mirror it.

  5. Invert the colors (black for white) and see what pops out.

  6. Show it to your mom (more generally, another person with eyeballs and no background in the subject).

  7. If you wear glasses, take them off and squint at it. Or print it out REALLY small.

  8. Read it out loud. Text is usually the most important bit of a design.

  9. Abstract the pieces of the design to little boxes or circles, and see what pops out.

  10. Hold it against different contexts -- e.g. take it outside and put it on the lawn and see how it looks there.

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The biggest problem with a design that "just doesn't feel right" is that "feeling right" is a vague and unquantifiable condition, meaningless and self-defeating. "It works for me" is a phrase every designer should write in bold letters on a big sheet of paper, then burn and never think of saying again.

Any design has a purpose: to say something effectively to a particular audience. The first step, then, is to be certain that you can clearly state the purpose of the piece. Sometimes just doing that will reveal what needs to be fixed. There's a bit of a trick to this, but it's not hard to learn. Once you have the message and the purpose clearly in mind, you "switch hats" and look at your design as one of its audience. (Say it's a car ad -- look at it as if you were the kind of person who buys that kind of car. Take their viewpoint.) You'll sometimes be amazed at what you can suddenly see that was invisible before.

The next step is to look at what "doesn't work" or "doesn't feel right" and articulate precisely why. This might take a bit of work, and you might have to borrow another pair of eyes, but as a designer this is probably the finest skill you will develop. When you can turn "it doesn't feel right" into "there is not enough contrast between the text and the background, so it looks unimportant" or "this is an ultra-modern product and Goudy is early 20th Century" or "the design leads the eye out of the frame instead of onto the product image" you will have conquered the problem simply by stating it clearly.

What not to do: ask for opinions and accept vague answers that begin "I think...", because they will lead you in circles and you will be no closer to your goal of a design that talks to the right audience and says, effectively and clearly, what the client needs to say.

One of the very best statements of this principle is this article by John McWade, from the Before & After blog. Highly recommended reading for any designer.

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  • put it on the shelf and work on something else for a while
  • get proper critiques from design peers
  • gut it. Sometimes we get too attached to what we've created when, deep down, we know it's not the best solution.
  • step way back. Stick it on the wall.
  • re-evaluate all the objectives. Is the design accommodating them all? Do the objectives need some re-thinking?
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