updated: May 7th, 2014 / Ross Johnson / 0 Comments

Designing with Intention

Anytime you design there exists a choice to do so intentionally or intuitively. The intuitive approach uses one’s instincts to feel out the needs of the design. They piece together the layout, information architecture, and visual style based on what feels right. It tends to be a trial-and-error process.

Intentional design, on the other hand, is the use of requirements and constraints to purposefully make decisions to create the most effective design possible. The intentional designer considers what elements should or should not be on the page, why, and in what manner they should be portrayed.

There is a difference between knowing about a theory and deciding how/when to use it. As we become experienced and familiar with something we develop subconscious behaviors. Things that once required our full attention become automatic. You might think about design principles less now than you did when you first started your career; however, you should be thinking about it even more. Let’s explore why.

If you have some design experience under your belt, you may justify designing intuitively since you no longer think too consciously about principles like balance, composition, and contrast. Perhaps they seem to come automatically. Like driving a car, with a bit of practice you don’t need to think about when to step on the brakes or how to turn the steering wheel.

Why Design Intuition Can Be Deceiving

Design intuition can lead us astray because, whether we humans realize it or not, we demand an answer for everything. We’re always trying to interpret what we see. If you see two elements spaced ten pixels apart and the third is spaced sixteen pixels apart, your mind subconsciously tries to figure out why. If it can’t determine a reason, you’ll feel like something feels off. On a macro level, if you have a whole design that has inconsistent sizing and spacing, it will always feel slightly jumbled and incomplete.


Human beings are more perceptive than we give ourselves credit for. Most people can sense the difference between intentional design choices and unintentional ones. A perfect demonstration of this is the golden rectangle. The golden rectangle describes the bias humans have toward rectangles that use a 1.61803399:1 ratio. This is a very specific number, yet when people were asked to select the rectangle that was most appealing, the 1.618033991:1 ratio is most commonly chosen.

So if we’re really that sensitive to such a specific ratio in rectangle dimensions, imagine how using more than a dozen similar principles impacts an entire design. Guesswork is an impossible way to create the most effective layout.

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 12.05.47 PM

Figure 1.1

Furthering discrediting trial-and-error is the pesky fact that aesthetic preference is subjective. Each pair of eyes and each brain interprets visuals differently. What looks good and makes sense to one person could be ugly and confusing to another. In Figure-1.2 we have a design that is balanced through asymmetry. The different shapes and white space create a balanced design even though the weight and placement isn’t done in a conventional, symmetrical way. Many people will see this design as balanced and clean; others are likely to see the exact opposite–a design that’s random, cluttered, and chaotic.

So if you’re designing by what looks attractive to you, it could very well be at the expense of what looks good to everyone else. We are rarely the best judge of what looks the best to the widest range of people. As a designer it’s (understandably) easy to get too close to your own work and lose objectivity.

Sure, the intuitive trial-and-error approach can, at times, lead to good design. Sometimes you might hit the jackpot and end up with something completely amazing, but why leave your work to chance?

If you want to end up with inspiring design for every project you take on, you need to be intentional and not rely on luck. This means that every design choice should be an educated and appropriately objective one.

Intentional Design

Companies like Herman Miller,  Steelcase, and Apple have successfully used design as a primary business differentiator. The design quality from these companies is quite calculated. If it were just a matter of experience coupled with trial-and-error, any company could conceivably produce well-designed products like Steelcase–yet few companies do.

Case Study: It’s Easy to Fall Astray

If you’re working on a design for a bank using the test-and-assess approach you may end up with a design that incorporates a large background photo on every page. Out of all the combinations you tried, this may have looked the most appealing and interesting to you. By deciding not to use this approach you might completely overlook the fact the photo is not relevant to the latest rates or online banking (what most users visit the site for) and has slowed the site down. Instead, you could have consciously explored what imagery is appropriate for the site and worked in a small-but-noticeable masthead that achieves a similar effect without distracting the user.

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2

The problem in this scenario isn’t the design treatment. Both approaches can be used to create interesting visuals, but there is a correct approach for the situation. If you were working on a website for an online car community like CarFreaks.net (Figure-1.2), the decision to use a large photo background strengthens the design. The users who frequent this site are likely interested in exotic cars and will connect with the dramatic imagery. In addition, the majority of this site’s users are likely to have high-speed internet access, so picture load times are not significant. This same approach becomes a strong design decision instead of a weak one.

Unfortunately, many avoid this approach because it’s difficult to definitively say what visuals embody a company. It’s much easier to do the test-and-assess method rather than do the research.

Adopting Intentional Design

Rather than eyeballing how wide your left column should be, you need to decide based on your knowledge of proportion and principles such as the rule of thirds, or the golden ratio (discussed in the communication layer). Even if you choose to design outside the principles in this blog, deciding intentionally with reason will create a more cohesive and logical design. Viewers on a subconscious level pick up these subtle details and understand the design at a higher level because of them.

The intentional design approach is more difficult; there is no question about it. It may be a struggle to incorporate if you’re not currently working this way. You’ll ultimately be rewarded for your efforts when the end result is received well by your clients, end users, and colleagues.


We sometimes believe that the elements of design are subjective. We make assumptions about how well a site is designed based on our own aesthetic preferences–but design is not as subjective as we think. One design can out-perform another but isn’t necessarily going to be the one you or the client “likes.” There are tools available to prove what does and doesn’t work, so we’re able to approach design in a more quantifiable way more than ever before.