Mediocrity vs. Excellence: What Separates Good From Great?

As a designer, especially one without a lot of experience, it’s normal to look at the designs of others and think how great their work is compared to our own.

It’s a frustrating experience for many, especially when we can’t quite put our finger on why their design is so great when ours is merely good.

The thing about design, though, is that greatness is usually quantifiable.

Unlike with more abstract and interpretable creative pursuits, there are definite elements that go into “great” designs.

The best part is that anyone who can create a good design can go on to create great designs with a bit of practice. Here’s what goes into great design and what you can do to improve your own designs.



If you compare a number of website designs, side-by-side, it’s likely you’ll notice a huge difference in attention to detail among them.

In all likelihood, the ones with more focus on the little details will stand out as being more polished and professional-looking than the others.

It’s obvious a lot of attention went into the details of The Mid-Century Modernist’s design.

Detail often equals effort. A designer who takes the time to focus on the small details of a project, the things that 90% of people won’t notice outright but result in a more polished-looking design, has an edge over those who don’t take the extra hour or two to add those final touches that make a huge difference in how a design is perceived.

Pay Attention to Small Details

The small details—an icon here, a border there—are the things that make a design great, instead of just good.

Take almost any “good” design and you can likely see where making tiny adjustments could make it a “great” design. Those are the things that great designers see immediately and incorporate into their original work.

There are so many tiny details in this design that really set it apart, from the banner headers to the subtle textures in both the background and header.

Once you have your basic design finished, think about the small things you can do to make certain elements of the design stand out a bit more. Look at other websites for inspiration and pay attention to the little things they do in their designs that improve the overall look.

Imitate until you learn to incorporate these things on your own.

Be a Perfectionist

Great designers are often perfectionists. They want things to be “just so” and will work on a project until they’ve got it just the way they want it. Very rarely do they look at a project and think “good enough”.

Unless you run into real technical limitations, stick to the idea of how you really want a particular site to look. Putting in the extra hours to get it just right is almost always worth it when you look back.

Skipping that extra effort will likely bug you any time you look at the site and it doesn’t quite live up to the mental image you had when you started.

Small Things Set a Design Apart

It’s the little things that set a design apart from others like it.

Every single element on the page has an impact on how the design looks overall. So pay attention to the borders, the icons, the minutiae of the typography, and all the other little details we have a tendency to rush through in an effort to reach the project’s completion.

The care obviously spent on the typography on this site really shows, and moves it into the realm of great.



The best designs out there are often more creative than the majority of other designs in their industry.

They often take a different approach to a common problem and do something unique. Other times it’s just stepping outside the norm when it comes to layout, color scheme, typography, or graphics.

While creativity can’t be taught, per se, it can be improved and refined. You can train yourself to think more creatively, and to look at situations with a more creative eye.

Look at Things From a Different Angle

This is akin to “thinking outside the box”. Great designers approach projects from different angles than their good counterparts.

They know how to think through all the different possibilities on a project and then choose one that’s different but will still work to achieve the project goals.

This portfolio design is strikingly different from most others, especially in the fact that the actual work isn’t shown, just sketches of the work.

There are ways you can teach yourself to think in this manner. One way is to force yourself to brainstorm a certain number of solutions to a given problem. Instead of listing out only the three “best” solutions, make yourself come up with twenty possible solutions.

You’ll likely struggle with it at first, but eventually you’ll start coming up with other options (most of which will be ridiculous, just to reach the number), one or two of which might actually work for the project.

Thinking Around Corners

Thinking around corners is sort of like taking looking at things from a different angle to the extreme. You’re thinking not just one step ahead, but three. All while looking at things in a very abstract way.

AOL’s corporate site uses a very unconventional layout for displaying important information about the company. It breaks away from what a typical corporate “About” page usually looks like.

Corners are like blind spots in our creative vision. We have to learn to think past those blind spots and think abstractly (and sometimes illogically) about what we’re trying to do.

Thinking around corners is often associated with riddles. Because of that, riddling can be a good way to improve your ability to think around corners.

Train Yourself to Think Differently

Training yourself to think differently is more about practice than anything else. Whenever you’re faced with an obstacle, think through more than just the obvious ways of getting around it. Make yourself come up with more solutions than are necessary.

This is one of the more unique layouts I’ve seen, and it’s obvious the designer put effort into coming up with something really different.

Constantly stretching your mind and your creative thinking abilities is the only way to become more creative. It’s not something you can learn from a tutorial. Instead, you have to engage your creative mind every day, and stretch it beyond your normal comfort zone.

This is best done by stepping outside the creative realm you normally inhabit and finding new creative outlets.


Paying Attention to Your End User

In design, the end user’s experience is probably the single-most important element to great design. Regardless of how pretty something is, if it’s not usable, it’s a failure in terms of design. A hard-to-use design will never be great.

You have to learn how to anticipate what your end-users will want. Usability studies help with this, but they’re not always an option. In the end the most effective method will be to place yourself in your user’s shoes and empathize with what they want.

Usability is Key to Great Design

A design that is attractive and highly usable is the epitome of great design. There’s nothing better than finding a beautiful site with an intuitive user interface.

Taking the time to learn good usability patterns is key to becoming a great designer. Don’t just look at what works, look at why it works. Look at the psychological patterns behind why a certain design works better than another.

This allows you to tap into that psychological knowledge base and create a user-friendly site that doesn’t necessarily conform to how things are “normally” done.

A design like this shows that not only do the designers understand that tabbed design is more intuitive, but also where the psychological attachments people have to tabs are there.

What Do Your End-Users Really Want?

Whenever you start a new project, the first thing you should be asking yourself is what your end-users want from the site. This may or may not be in line with what your client wants, so balancing the two can get tricky.

For example, on an e-commerce site, your client’s goal is to get visitors to buy products. The end user’s goal, though, is likely to make an informed purchasing decision. You have to balance those two goals and figure out how to give your users the information they need while still encouraging them to purchase.

A website that can meet the goals of all stakeholders while still being attractive and unique is the pinnacle of great design.


Learning to Be Great

Learning to become a great designer isn’t impossible, especially if you’re already a good designer. One tip: learn to be good before attempting to be great. There’s no shortcut to go from competent to great. You have to be good first.

While a lot of learning to be a great designer is just practicing your craft, there are some specific things in addition to those mentioned above that you can do to improve your chances.

Study and Deconstruct

It’s not enough to just look at great designs. You need to learn to study and deconstruct them. Look at them with a critical eye and pick out what it is about them that’s different from what other designers are doing. Look at what they did that didn’t quite work (and what you would have done instead). Look at all the little details.

If it helps, use a program like Firebug to look at the code for a site so you can see exactly what another designer did. Sometimes it’s hard to say exactly why a site looks so polished without looking at the code.

In a lot of cases, it’s simply a matter of a little extra padding or slightly higher line spacing than normal.

Challenge Yourself

Challenging yourself on a daily basis is a great way to open up your mind. Don’t just focus on design, though.

Challenge yourself in any creative or intellectual pursuits you engage in. The results from one will likely carry over into the others as you become more accustomed to challenging your mind.

Challenge yourself to create newer, more complicated designs, too. Don’t just take the easy way out when creating something new. Figure out what you really want the end result to be, regardless of your current abilities, and then work toward that goal.

Learn New Things

If you hope to become a great designer, you should constantly be learning new techniques and approaches to design.

If you allow your skills to stagnate, you’ll find that what passed for great this year will look amateur and hackneyed next year. Constantly updating your skill-set also gives you more options, as you have a larger knowledge base to draw from to solve design problems.

You don’t need to take formal classes to learn new things. Just read everything you can get your hands on in your field. Read design blogs and books, read or watch tutorials, and try out the things you learn.

Follow Other Creative Pursuits

A lot of designers already have other creative pursuits. You find designers who are also painters, musicians, crafters, writers, and everything in between. These other creative outlets and skills can feed back into our design work. We can take concepts we learn in one artistic field and apply them in another.

Pursue creative activities outside of the design field. Find something else that’s creative that you’re passionate about and spend some time on that. Then take what you learn there and apply it to your design work and you’ll almost certainly see big improvements.

Written exclusively for WDD by Cameron Chapman.

What do you think goes into creating great websites? Any tricks or tips for designing better websites? Please share in the comments!

  • Yf

    Great article! It’s all about the details :)

  • Kevin

    Nice post, details are definitly one of the most important features of a design!

  • Debbie Hemley

    Great post.

    There was an interesting article in Boston Globe on March 2nd, When Bad Websites Happen to Good Restaurants. lots of good lessons for them here.

  • Dustin

    Sometimes you just end up making something fantastic at random. That one idea that translates into something amazing. But many of these tips are still very relavent. I’ve always found that if I can’t produce something to the quality I want it to be, I take a break. After a few hours I can come back and somehow create it at the level I had expected. Strange huh? Nice tips though :D.

    • Joshua

      “Sometimes you just end up making something fantastic at random.”

      Very Well said! I’ve had this experience several times. ;)

  • Tanner Christensen

    When I first began reading this article I was skeptical (quantifiable metrics for great design, really?) but as I read I began to realize that what’s here is true, albeit a bit skewed.

    Perfection is an opinion, so striving for it only leads to a dead end. However, aiming for attention to details, using creativity, and ensuring that your ideas are functional are all great ways to determine whether a design is “great” as opposed to just “good.”

    Thanks for the read, I needed it today. :)

  • Mark G

    In regards to attention to detail, did that Black Harbor website really mean to label one of the sections the “squak” rather than “squawk” box? :-)

  • Dessign

    If you compare yourself to other designers you will never be happy, just do what you doing, and “Practice makes Perfect”, most of the amazing design you see are done by people who been doing this for good 20 years,


    • Angelee

      I’ll second to that! Another awesome post. These highlighted websites should serve as inspiration and sources of new techniques, not as basis of comparison.

  • Chris

    It usually happens that we as designers compare our works with other designers since visual comparissons are easy. But sometimes I realise that keeping the eye in other people´s work trying to be better, just put us away from what is the most important thing in creating good designs: “seein inside”. I´m 100% sure that those designs we find amazing and great come from inside the designer that made them following his instincts, feelings, guts, etc. How to probe this?, Think about the best design you´ve done, It´s always effortless in terms of how it grows inside you as an idea, and no matter how much time you spend making it better, that time is always joyful and pleasant, cause good designs FEEL good.
    My conclussion, seeing other designs is good, paying attention to details and styles, very important, finding inspiration inside and letting go all of the pressure of making a good design to achieve tha hard task of designing from the heart, INDISPENSABLE. :)

  • Sam Sharpe

    None of these examples look “great” to me (no offense to the designers) – i.e. they don’t wow me like a Muller-Brockmann poster or some of the flash sites Deconstruct were making in the late 90’s – early 2000’s, they look like the majority of web design in it’s current state – 960 pixels wide, designed for telephones rather than computer displays.

    Web design was far more interesting in the use of design prior to the new priesthood of buzzwords and separating analysis, technical and visual disciplines. When is the web going to get immersive again? A web site can be about creating a place, a virtual environment if you will.

    One of the problems that has got web design stuck in this rut of same same but (slightly) different is that designers and developers have gone from being able to use a tool called Flash that allowed you to design web sites with far less constraints than HTML and CSS, it also allowed for a far better user experience as content is loaded as required without refreshing the whole page (it is also easy to give the user visual indication of what is happening via preloader graphics). Yes Flash has got drawbacks, searching, isolated content (this can be a benefit for certain projects and industries – photography for example) and ownership by a single entity.

    The W3C have not addressed in HTML standards a method to do what Flash can do with HTML, CSS and JQuery, you can get close (kind of) but there is still a lack of flexibility in web standards, current and proposed.

    I don’t know if there are any designers on web standards committees but if there are not I think it is imperative to have some involved in order to make sure we have an international system for designing web sites that is not concentrating on information and content as being totally separate from visual appearance.

    Imagine how boring publishing would have been for the past 100 years if every magazine was printed on A4 and used one of a selection of five type faces. The whole subject of separating content from appearance has been debated in traditional graphic design for well over 50 years, depending on what “great” designers you speak to you will get different views on this subject, however you will find very few that will agree that there is only one right way to present content visually, and even fewer would argue that good visual communication is done by isolating content from form.

    Flexibility is the way forward not conformity.

  • Brad

    Great post Cameron. I think another aspect that distinguishes good design from great design is the proper use of white space and color pallets. This is something that I have been learning more about lately. Our brain’s visual interpretation of things is amazing and the designers that know how to evoke certain emotions and perceptions by their color choices and spacing have a leg up on the rest of the field.

    Thanks again.

  • avigill

    nice work

    gonna add bookmark of this site

  • Jenius

    I’m frankly surprised that right after you complement the website, you mention that usability is extremely important. That website is creative sure, but absolutely awful, visually cluttered, and virtually unusable. I agree that usability is key, but this point should be emphasized above all else. It doesn’t matter how cool and creative and pretty looking your website is if it isn’t usable.

  • karthik

    Thanks a lot. Posts like these are really helpful for inexperienced designers like me who are overwhelmed by the tutorials and articles out there and don’t know where to start.

  • inspirationfeed

    Great article!

  • Gaurav Mishra

    Cameron.. you ROCK!

  • Graphic Design Company

    Good design is combining a good idea with good execution. Easier said than done!

  • Adam Fairhead Creative

    A great read. Quite often about the details. Or simply thinking totally “out of the box”. Thanks for the share.

  • mariemma

    Very good post! Thanks