Bold visual styles are hard to use

“Bold” visual styles use expressive aesthetics, eye-catching imagery, saturated colours, high contrast, and often surprise you with unexpected elements or decisions.

Bold visual styles help your interface stand out. People notice it, because it’s more noticeable by default. If you want to be noticed, boldness is valuable.

But bold visual styles are often hard to use in ways that “subtle” visual styles are not. Here are some thoughts on why.

It’s hard to direct attention with lots of bold elements

Bold elements demand your attention. When too many elements demand attention it can make an interface worse. Good design is partly about how attention is directed. That becomes harder when lots of things look important. They distract people from whatever is actually important.

This means that it needs more work and more knowledge to include many bold elements and make sure they don’t distract people too much. To make the priority of elements clear.

It’s easier to direct attention if you use more subtle elements. e.g. lower the opacity on some imagery to make it fade into the background. But this makes the elements less bold.

Coherence is harder with bold elements, easier with subtle elements

Interfaces feel more coherent when everything works together visually. Subtle elements often feel more coherent by default. Subtle elements have less contrast with each other. Things feel like they belong together if they contrast less.

This is part of the reason why e.g. designers use faint text. Even though it’s hard to read. The lower contrast helps it fit in with the interface.

It feels good to make things more coherent with subtlety

When we struggle to make bold elements work, we might try a subtler version. Suddenly we see that it feels more coherent. It’s an improvement, and it feels good. We do the same thing with the next element. And the next.

Soon the interface is more coherent, but it’s also subtle. And we haven’t done what we originally wanted. We haven’t used a bold visual style.

It’s hard to use bold elements and to put in the time and effort to make them work together. And it feels bad to do hard things. It’s a constant battle to keep the style bold and make it work. Many designers slowly move away from the bold style to avoid the hard work. Even if they don’t realise until they end.

Bold visual styles make people uncomfortable

People ask questions like “is this too much?” when we try a bold style. We naturally don’t want to stand out too much. We’re scared of bold visual styles. They represent a risk. We don’t like how long it takes to make them look good.

All of these emotional reactions to boldness are powerful. They might not be easy to notice. But they make a CEO suggest something subtler. Or a Product Manager say “we don’t have the time or budget”. It’s hard to do something bold when you’re asked not to.