The Design Eye — Tool of the Designer Trade

Ian Ke (SEP Alum)
November 15, 2013

white eye on purple background

One of the innate talents of a good designer in any design industry is having a good eye for design. But what does it mean to have a good eye for design? It’s one of those things that is hard to put into words. It’s part instinct that has been developed based on years of experience, and it’s part keeping up with the trends of the day. But it’s also part intangible artistic ability.

When I was fresh out of school and newly-hired at my first design position, I was hired based on my portfolio alone. It didn’t matter where I went to school, or what my GPA was. I remember my boss at the time telling me that he had hired me because he could tell I had an eye for design from a brief glance at my portfolio. That brief glance is all it took for him to decide whether I had design chops or not. This ability to quickly assess a design is something that I believe all good designers pick up. So what is it exactly? What are our design eyes looking for?

I believe a big part of it is taking in the gestalt of a design, and understanding why the individual parts are contributing to a greater whole. Often times you will hear people say, “I like that design because it’s so clean.” “I like that design because it feels warm.” Or the design evokes a mood. But what does it mean to be clean or warm? How does a static design evoke a mood? If you ask a designer with a good design eye to take a look, they can tell you exactly what it means. It could be the way white space is used between or around elements to give an airiness and uncrowded feeling to a design. Or it could be the lack of white space that is causing a feeling of tension and lack of wiggle room. It could be the overall composition of a design. Much like in photography, elements can be framed in a purposeful way to call attention to them or draw attention away from them. It could be the choice of typography. Do the fonts look edgy and modern, or look old fashioned, like they were printed from a typewriter? It could be the use of color — with the cultural significance of a color playing a huge role in the design. It could be many things. But a good design eye allows us to know specifically what it is about a design that makes it an overall success.

Having a good design eye also means knowing what the trends of the day are. What the “in” colors are right now. I often times keep a mental note of all the colors I’m seeing when walking through a mall. Often times the trendy colors can be seen on clothing and advertising.  I keep my eye on design blogs to stay on top of trends. I also keep my eye on other things like app design, automobile design, and the design of the toys my kids play with. Knowing the current design conventions and trends is important to success today.

Then there are the more intangible aspects of having a good design eye. For example the ability to take in visual information (inspiration) and process it, and use it to create something wholly original. What is happening during that processing phase I could not describe. All I know is that I take in all the inspiration I can and trust in my own artistic process to develop and cultivate an idea into something tangible.

If we want to get more literal about having a good eye for design, I would suggest being detail-oriented at the pixel level, being able to spot the one lone pixel that is off for example, is also a part of having a good design eye.

There’s much more to it that I find hard to describe, but having an eye for design is the best tool I have in my designer toolbox, and I try to feed it and cultivate it everyday. Maybe that’s why my eyes are so terribly tired at the end of the day.

Headshot of Ian Ke (SEP Alum)

Ian Ke (SEP Alum)