Modest and restrained

You'd be forgiven for thinking that simple, pared back design loses some of its character. Surely when there are less visuals, there's also less visual interest? It doesn't have to be the case. As Kate Moran explains, 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.

Giles Colborne, in his book Simple and Usable, uses real world examples to prove how different two simple designs can be - how much character they can have. Keep in mind that both of these chairs, while being simple, are hugely successful design icons.

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

Those "small differences" are key, and you'll read more about those soon. Restraint is important for design if you don't want to be visually screaming at your users. Some designs find success with an over-the-top visual design, like Ling's Cars. These designs are relying on irony for success. If you look at many of the most commercially successful designs throughout history, they are restrained.

Here's one of Dieter Rams' ten design principles. He suggests that you avoid 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.

Nick Disabato provides a helpful definition for this concept.

[S]omething is clean when the ratio of ink or pixels dedicated to function is maximized relative to that dedicated to form.

Not every designer will know or believe how powerful restraint can be. That's when your use of restraint is even more powerful. If your competition likes to create loud, complicated, bloated design, you can stand out by not standing out.

Realize that design is also a liberal art. Quiet is always an option, even if everyone is yelling.

Nick Disabato makes a similar point:

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.

The other half of the chapter title is "modest". I chose this word because I think it represents the idea of Giles Colborne's "small differences" well. Modest people don't shout about their achievements, but they have achieved all the same. When there's only a hint of someone's success, you respect that success more. Their achievements seem all the more impressive because they're not shouting about it.

Jonas Downey, at Basecamp, explained this very well in an email to me.

[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.

Frank Chimero describes this approach as "close attention to detail". If the details are perfected, the whole design will be improved. It's these details that can take any simple design and give it character. It can make any simple design stand out compared to its competition, or bring the company's brand alive. The details are more noticeable because they're not surrounded by other loud visual elements.

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.

Frank puts this principle into practice when redesigning his own site:

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.

These details don't even have to be visual elements that affect the layout of the page. Modest amounts of colour can change entire designs for the better, as Frank explains:

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.

This is confirmed by Kate Moran at Nielsen Norman Group. She highlights that these small 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.

These modest touches are important to communicate a sense of quality to the user. If you want the user to be impressed, especially in a commercial sense, the small details are important.

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 alternative to modest design is likely to annoy your users, especially over time. Frank makes the point that while visual complexity might be interesting, that interest usually doesn't last. For the things we spend serious time with, we don't want them to demand our attention or distract us from what we're doing. We want them to be a comfortable part of our lives, not the annoying friend who won't take a hint.

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.

Finally, here's a quote I really like from Nicole Fenton. It isn't about design, but it describes why design should be modest so well that I had to include it. We can all find joy in simple things, especially if we're given space and time to enjoy them.

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.

Timeless → ← Typographic Back to the table of contents