Spotting Bad Design + How to Avoid It

Jacqueline Benson

Jacqueline Benson

Apr 30, 2021

As a designer, it’s easy for me to find issues, misspellings, or preventable design errors in the real world. A few years ago, I was at a local restaurant looking over the salads portion of the menu and saw a dish title that sounded good… but there was no description. As a vegetarian, it’s really important that I know exactly what’s included in a dish so I moved on to other options. After glancing at the appetizer section, I saw a small paragraph describing a salad, but no title; then it hit me, that ‘appetizer’ wasn’t an appetizer at all, but the missing salad description from an entirely different section of the menu. The menu was poorly designed and not proofed before printing. We often don’t notice design until it’s bad design and affects our ability to understand information. . Let’s talk about how to avoid that in our own pieces. 

There’s some key components in spotting poor design or creating good design; communication, placement, and contrast.  


To spot poor communication, you’ll probably know immediately since you’ll be confused, have questions, or find yourself quickly moving on. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when reviewing designs to make sure you’re communicating well. 

  • What’s the first thing you see? Then ask yourself if that’s what you want to see first?
  • Does something feel wrong, off, or missing?
  • Do you still have questions after viewing the piece for 5 seconds?
  • Do you know where to go or what to do next?
  • Are there typos or misspellings?

If the answers to your questions above aren’t what you were hoping for, then here are a few ways to avoid poor communication: 

  • Don’t use busy or hard-to-read fonts
  • Group similar information; i.e. a header and subheader, then add a larger space before any paragraphs
  • Use contrasting fonts and sizing to add in focus on what’s important


Sometimes just the placement of an element can vastly affect the overall design, just like the broken menu item I mentioned earlier. Here are a few things to watch out for to know when bad placement is affecting your piece:

  • Elements are cut off, especially important content like text or the focus of an image
  • Elements are separated or broken apart, adding confusion
  • There’s just too much placed on the piece, which can make it overwhelming

To help fix placement issues, look at key design principles for tips.

  • Align and group elements
  • Avoid widows and orphans; these are parts of sentences or singular words that are cut off from the remaining text 
  • Use whitespace for eye breaks and pauses, or to bring focus to one thing


When perceiving design, we most often consume images and color before we consume or read text. When contrast is poor, we’ll notice it quickly and often be turned away from whatever we’re looking at. It’s usually fairly obvious when contrast isn’t great, but here are a few key indicators:

  • You can’t read it because colors are too similar
  • Your eyes strain or hurt 
  • Too many of one thing or color adds confusion

To avoid bad contrast, try these few quick fixes:

  • Use colors at opposite ends of the saturation or tint/shade spectrum
  • Vary the element types and sizes used
  • Create a varying typeface hierarchy