Can you justify design?

Lea Alcantara

After writing about our logo design process, it reminded me of a post I wrote on Lealea’s Blogblog that is particularly relevant: how to justify design decisions. A crucial part of a rebrand process is being able to communicate the why of a particular design choice or direction. Throughout the journey of completing our logo, website, social media and other brand assets, a lot of our communication consisted of justifying my design choices to Emily. The following, which refreshes the original post, has many tips that still hold true. So, if you’re a designer struggling to get buy-in for your design deliverables, read on!

While many of us fret that some of our clients don’t understand the choices we make in a project, it’s startling to see that a lot of designers out there don’t understand their own choices. To me, the challenge is because these designers make design decisions without considering why something is placed somewhere, or choosing things almost “instinctively” or arbitrarily.

Yes, great designers definitely have a sharper eye than most, but a lot of their choices are less “instinctive” than most people realise. There is research involved, education in design history, various projects under their belt, etc. — all of which help designers make better decisions that seem “automatic.” You don’t necessarily need to have a formal design education background to grasp and apply universal design concepts that fiddle with line, space, proximity, colour, type, and images. Nor does formal education guarantee you can figure out context and relevancy to the audience and the times.

And yet, there’s this strange reluctance I’ve noticed with even the most educated designers trying to justify their decisions beyond the age-old “it just looks good.” If you’re an artist or hobbyist, or you’re doing something for fun, that excuse may fly. But in a professional industry, no.

Clients can be fickle, and if you don’t have strong reasons to back up your design, you could quickly fall into the quicksand of endless revisioning with no purpose. Justifying your design decisions helps establish you as an authority on the subject.

A good exercise to help hone your critical thinking skills so that you can more effectively understand and justify your design choices is to take take one of your favourite site designs and break it down. How can you break it down? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Count and write down how many typefaces and styles the site uses
  2. Recognize the size differences between the type elements
  3. Ask yourself why why the site features those specific typefaces (e.g. serif generally is more authoritative and old-fashioned, while sans-serif has a more contemporary flavour)
  4. Identify “decorative” or superfluous assets that enhance the design
  5. Identify “decorative” or superfluous assets that hinder the design
  6. Identity the colour palette — is it consistently applied (e.g. if #hexblue is applied to text links, it is applied across all text links on the site?)?
  7. Is there a theme or metaphor?
  8. Go through the layout and number each element in the order of importance in the layout. After, see if the way it’s laid out or emphasized is parallel to the priority of information.
  9. Ask “Who is the audience of this layout? Is it appropriate? Why or why not?”
  10. Ask “Is this relevant?”

When I first wrote this article, a few commented on what they found most important, and I agree with Dan Mall’s comment the most:

I especially support points 9 and 10. It seems that a lot of designers design for other designers, and not to support the content. It’s a mistake to assume that a design is unsuccessful because it doesn’t blow you away when you first see it. “New and exciting” doesn’t work for every project, but “appropriate and relevant” do.

Dan Mall

Original comment posted on

At the end of the day, design choices are informed by the goals and audience of the project, and it’s at the forefront of my mind in all my design decisions today.

The above is a solid starting point to help you recognize (and even understand) the choices good designers make — and why. With that understanding, you are better prepared to justify your own design decisions. And when you can effectively justify your design choices, the more your clients will take you seriously as a designer.

Relevant Reading

Originally posted on

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