Does simplicity in design work? Look no further than the design and marketing of iPods and Ikea manuals for evidence of its success. How is it achieved? The execution depends on the thing being created and what purpose it will serve. After all, design encompasses everything from flat pieces like posters and web pages to complex creations like architecture and UI design. But the focus in this post will be on things that live in print or web form.
What we think of as “modern” design began in the 1910s, with William Morris’ assertion that utility was just as important as beauty. The creation of the Bauhaus school in Germany in 1919 centered on an explicit rejection of the lingering, flowery, Victorian values in favor of a new, practical, brutally realistic school of thought. The ideals of modernism, functionality, and simplicity that they lifted up are the ones we still value today.
The purpose and goal of design is to convey information. Therefore, ideally, a design is exclusively made up of all the components necessary to convey the relevant message or information, and every unnecessary thing you add is one more thing that stands between your audience and your message.
There certainly is a place for complex design — when handling large sets of data or dense academic topics, for example. But in all cases, the information is the top priority; your design should serve as a vessel for it, not a sugar coating. Ideally, design should be intuitive. And if the content is best served by a detailed design that takes a long time to read, then do that. The place where you don’t want a complex design is where simple design can communicate the same message.
Logos and Icons
One of the best examples of simple and effective design is logo design. The principle of “less is more” is epitomized beautifully in logos like those of Apple and Nike. The same principles also apply to creating icons. All the details that make an illustration visually rich get lost — or worse, become confusing — when reduced to the size of an icon. A successful icon or logo will have a minimal number of colors and elements.
The challenge of creating good data visualization is that it forces you to scrutinize all the signifiers you’re using. For instance, if you’re making a chart or graph, labels for the different metrics should be used, but sometimes fewer are needed than one might think. While your first inclination might be to label every number, give your audience some credit; they can probably count from 1 to 10 themselves.
Like colors, it can be tempting to keep adding typefaces to a design. However, it’s best to keep the selection limited. Three or four should be enough – that includes different weights of typefaces.
Although the elements necessary to create a successful design vary from project to project, keeping things simple is key to make sure your audience gets your intended message.
What are your favorite examples of simple design? Let us know in the comments.