Is simple design less bold or characterful? It doesn’t have to be. There may be less chances to communicate with the user. There’s always room for creativity.
Digital interfaces are becoming simpler and more streamlined because that's what users need and want. That's what we as a field have learned over decades of user research. But simplicity doesn't have to mean uniformity. There is plenty of room to be creative while helping people understand your content and complete their tasks. We don't need to make things harder for our users just to stand out, or to keep them interested.
Two simple things can still be different.
Simple doesn't mean minimal. Stripped-down designs can still have their own character and personality. Take two simple chairs: a Shaker chair and an Eames chair ... The two designs are simple, yet they have utterly distinct characters that derive from subtle differences in their purposes and technologies. The materials you use, the emphasis you place on key elements, and the way you combine even a few elements will have a dramatic effect on the final design. People will recognise and put value on the small differences
Some designs find success with an over-the-top visual design, like Ling's Cars. These designs rely on irony. Many of the successful and lasting designs throughout history are modest.
Simple design avoids decoration or art.
Good design is unobtrusive. Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained.
You can use a simple rule of thumb to help.
[S]omething is clean when the ratio of ink or pixels dedicated to function is maximized relative to that dedicated to form.
Designers commonly give in to the temptation of boastful design. This gives modest design an ironic chance to stand out.
Realize that design is also a liberal art. Quiet is always an option, even if everyone is yelling.
Interactions should be kept separate from graphic design. Only use graphics if they fulfill a functional purpose ... Remove any graphics that don’t aid in someone’s interaction. Disputes between stakeholders and designers should favor the conventional and familiar, the tried and tested. In a world where everyone is trying to shout loudly, simplicity and elegance speak forcefully.
Modest design is that which shows its personality less often. But when the design is simple, a little goes a long way.
Basecamp’s Jonas Downey explained to me that HEY only used bold colours in certain situations.
[We put] content first. The main goal of an email app or a project management app is to help you read things, and get work done. If the app's visual design is so prominent or stylized that it distracts from those core tasks, it'll feel noisy and annoying. So the visual design has to fade back a bit, to let the content be the star of the show. This is a difficult problem as a designer, because you also want the app to feel distinct, with its own personality and style. In HEY, we achieved this by giving supplemental widgets (like popup menus) a bold color. Since you only see those when you're taking actions on things, and not while you're just reading email, it's a good compromise. It's bold and colorful in little bursts, but mellow and calm most of the time when you're just passively reading and sorting through things.
Close attention to detail is enough when those details are viewed in a simple context.
I aim for a design that's like vanilla ice cream: simple and sweet, plain without being austere. It should be a base for more indulgent experiences on the occasions they are needed, like adding chocolate chips and cookie dough. Yet these special occasions are rare. A good vanilla ice cream is usually enough. I don't wish to be dogmatic—every approach has its place, but sometimes plainness needs defending in a world starved for attention and wildly focused on individuality. Here is a reminder: the surest way forward is usually a plain approach done with close attention to detail. You can refine the normal into the sophisticated by pursuing clarity and consistency.
I anticipate this personal site redesign to follow a path back to basics. Here is where I'd like to end up: Modest elegance: Think elevated defaultness. Premium vanilla ice cream, top shelf ingredients used modestly and well. Tight focus on typography for better reading and suggestion of craft and quality. No tacky razzle-dazzle ... Whim: Achieve all of the above without being austere or over-serious. Have some fun. Smile a bit. No black turtleneck design.
Colour is a good way to add personality without complication.
Let's face it: designers like myself can pursue simplicity and end up with work that looks pretty austere and joyless ... Gaudiness is typically thought of as being excessive or showy, but ... there can be a tastelessness in simplicity, a blandness, a lack of spine and absence of virtue ... One of the ways that I've found to add spirit to simple designs is through color. The color need not be showy, only rich and nuanced.
These small colour touches can have a bigger impact than you might assume.
In most minimalist interfaces, color is used strategically to create visual interest or direct attention without adding any additional design elements or actual graphics. With less visual information vying for a user's attention, color palettes are more noticeable and will be more influential in a site's impact.
There’s a broad principle at work here. The less things you use in a design, the more impact each thing has. Colour will draw the eye in an otherwise greyscale design. Large type will stand out if you only use one small type elsewhere.
This principle is not new.
Because a tearoom is a simple space unfixed to any particular location, the consciousness of those who share it for a time becomes so receptive that the smallest bit of ingenuity will engender in their minds the richest image.
Attention to detail is important for another reason. It lets the user know that the product is high quality, especially when the design is simple.
Consumers will only be drawn to the smaller, less functional product if they perceive it to be more valuable than a bigger version of the product with more features. Thus the perception of quality becomes a critical factor when making the choice of less over more … Lessen what you can and conceal everything else without losing the sense of inherent value. [Embodying] a greater sense of quality through enhanced materials and other messaging cues is an important subtle counterbalance to [shrinking] and [hiding] the directly understood aspects of a product.
The opposite of simple design is likely to annoy people eventually. How long can you spend around someone who constantly shouts?
The consistency of normalcy improves the experience of living with the objects, because the longer we spend in contact with the products of design, the more their willful attempts at individualism irritate us. A few items surely deserve to have an identity (perhaps an attractive pattern on the sofa or the blanket on your bed), but not everything deserves it (highly patterned floors make me dizzy). Most everything must fade into the background for our built environments to be hospitable.
Simple design needn’t lack variety. Variety in visual design is good as long as it is tied to variety in meaning.
Variety can be a great simplifier when it is used to signal variety in meaning by separating different types of information. Variety can, in principle, involve any type of graphic effect, location, colour, typeface, size, and more. If variety is used for pure decoration, it reduces simplicity and increases clutter.
This appreciation of modesty isn’t unique to design.
It's hard to say what a simple thing is. It's the way fruit looks on our sunny table. It's fresh chai. Or butter, puffed up in a crust. It's jam on toast. It's just beautiful enough to take time to enjoy. I love the lasting, pretty, plain things. They give me pause.
Next chapter →
← Previous chapter
Back to the table of contents