When Good Design Goes Bad

By // Tori Thomas

I have a “good design” bias, the assumption that good design is best. ALWAYS. This assumption was reiterated throughout college and into my career. Every project seemed to emphasize that good design takes work. Hard work. Bad design is lazy. And makes the world a worse place.


But what if good design can hurt? What if perfectly set typography can lead people astray?


My bias was first challenged at my first job. I couldn’t believe the atrocious colors of the company’s logo. And I, the all-knowing graphic designer, had to design with them! The horror. Surely this business was doomed to fail. Then, there was Google. That logo. It was awful. How were they possibly succeeding?


At Circa, we are currently reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It’s a fascinating book that dives into the intricacies of our mind and how we are influenced. One chapter that struck us is about cognitive ease versus strain. Kahneman goes into depth on the outside influences that effect our judgement.


Cognitive ease is created when something appears familiar, puts you in a good mood, is displayed clearly, and is a primed or repeated idea. That hit home. It’s the basics of branding and marketing. It’s what gave me a job. When people are in a state of cognitive ease, they respond with their feelings. If it feels good and true, it must be good and true. No need to think past the initial perception.


Cognitive strain is experienced when you read something in a poor font, that is displayed shoddily, has complicated wording, and/or induces a bad mood. This puts people on edge, making them less likely to respond with their intuition and more likely to be suspicious. Consequently, they spend more effort understanding and are less likely to make errors.

As a graphic designer, I was stunned. The “design bias” I have held so closely was pried open. Yes, good design matters. It has a powerful ability to persuade and influence. But what matters more is what it is promoting.

We are inundated with design. It’s everywhere, and it seems to be getting better everyday. While I am inclined to think this is a good thing, it’s important for us as designers to understand our responsibility to provide valid and reliable information that is embedded in our work.

At Circa, we collaborate closely with our clients. It has always been important for us to align with our client’s values. We knew this from the start, and now we have a better understanding of the science behind our intuition. We knew that what we do matters, without necessarily knowing the details of why. Our collaborative approach is newly validated by our enhanced understanding of the depth of impact of our work.

While we have always understood the importance of good design, we now associate a greater responsibility to our work. If what we do as designers has the power to influence people’s thoughts, feeling and decisions at such primal, subliminal levels we want to be certain that we are promoting worthy causes. It is not enough to be effective designers, at Circa we are also aware that what we create does impact our community. We take seriously our role in promoting what will move the world toward a better place for everyo



At Circa, we love a good book. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow offers insight into how we think. It’s a great resource for designers to understand our influence and our responsibility. We recommend it in print or audiobook. The print version offers interesting exercise that do not translate through audio.