Communication Design: The Complexity of Simplicity

Complexity can be beautiful. The layers of an orchestral symphony, the delicate structure of a Victorian building, and the construction of a multi-course feast all require incredible nuance to achieve. But the time and effort required for seemingly “simpler” versions of these things — an understated melody, a minimalist home, a perfect sushi roll — is no less laborious. Often, creating beauty with fewer elements is actually harder or more time-consuming. This principle is especially true in communication design.

Simple and Clean Design, Defined

It’s a common belief that “clean” and “simple” design is easy and can be produced almost instantly. Fewer elements means fewer details, which means less work, right?

The terms are also broad enough that they’re used generously across a multitude of styles and layouts. Each audience, brand, and medium can define it differently. Any of the styles covered in our “5 Inspiring Design Styles” post could be someone’s idea of clean and simple communication design, even if they aren’t yours. It’s the designer’s or agency’s job to suss out what a client means when they use these terms.

We find “clean” and “simple” really means distilling visual communication down to the essentials. A simple design communicates a complex message with the fewest elements and without complication. Take these examples:

Following an identity refresh, BECU wanted to amp up a visual strategy to appeal to their diverse membership and update their digital presence.

We first worked with MyConsultQ to develop a visual strategy for a conference. The company needed a strong visual presence that would catch their audiences’ eyes from across a conference hall and quickly tell their story.

While the Downtown Seattle Association had an existing brand when they came to us, they needed a unique visual language established before we also produced the collateral for their annual meeting.

Why Clean Communication Design Doesn’t Equal Quick Design

Remember: these styles are not automatically faster than something more detailed. Simplicity requires an immense revision process that rivals that of more complex approaches. If you aren’t a designer, it can be hard to get into a designer’s mindset in order to understand this. Let’s take another route to explaining how the outwardly simple can actually be deceivingly complex.

Imagine writing an essay about the past year of your life. It might be tough to get started, but once you find a rhythm you could wind up with pages upon pages of memories and insights.

Now think about summing up the last year of your life in a single sentence. You might manage to come up with one, but does it really encompass everything you’d write about in all those pages? Is every word the exact word you need to communicate each and every one of those thoughts in the full book?

You may find that crafting the perfect, comprehensive sentence takes longer than journaling the full collection of memories. But in the end, that single sentence may feel like a more elegant, effective way to communicate the content of that last year in many contexts. That’s how “simple” design functions.

When to Use Simple and Clean Design

Your choice of design style depends on your existing brand, your audience, your campaign, and your goals. If your brand lives for those minute details, simple communication design would only be a good choice if you are looking to depart from your core brand — such as on a microsite for a unique campaign or in materials for a sub-brand. Even then, depending on what your designer learns from talking with you about your project and goals, they may still steer you away from such a bold departure.

It’s difficult to make rules about which styles to use for each situation, because every brand and every project is unique. However, one fairly universal application for simple and clean design comes in how you present data visualization. Extra distractions and effects on charts and graphs can make it difficult to focus on the information, so stay away from anything too flashy where data is concerned. Focus only on what’s relevant.

Beyond that, if you’re interested in clean aesthetics for your communication design collateral, just be open with your designer about what draws you to it and why you’d like to go that route. The more details they have, the better they can help you determine if it’s the right choice for your project or present you with alternate recommendations.

Lucy Todd

Author Lucy Todd

Lucy Todd is the Chief Process Officer at Killer Visual Strategies. She is a Seattle native and Western Washington University graduate. Her degree in Creative Writing and her customer service background both inform her work daily. A Killer employee since 2011 and executive since 2014, Lucy has researched for, written, and/or project-managed over 4,000 projects for the company, affording her key insight into our processes and projects. This experience is invaluable in allowing her to lead and empower Killer’s content and project management teams to success. Lucy enjoys managing the day-to-day at the office, offering a unique perspective when a team or colleague feels stuck, and learning from her peers and clients each day.

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