Simple design both requires and enables focus. Ken Segall explains it in better words than I can:
Simplicity allows people to focus on one thing. Conversely, focusing on one thing helps achieve Simplicity.
In order to create and release a simple design, the organisation behind it needs to be focused on delivering the right design for the right reasons. That design needs to enable the user to do the right things. As Jeffrey Zeldman tells us, it's easy to fall into the trap of complicating design and technology. Complicated design seems to be like a Siren call for some people.
Good communication strives for clarity. Design is its most brilliant when it appears most obvious—most simple. The question for web designers should never be how complex can we make it. But that's what it has become. Just as, in pursuit of “delight,” we forget the true joy reliable, invisible interfaces can bring, so too, in chasing job security, do we pile on the platform requirements, forgetting that design is about solving business and customer problems ... and that baseline skills never go out of fashion.
Flashy visual design is beautiful, difficult, and impresses other people. You feel great when you do it. It's no surprise many people choose to spend time on it. It can also make us forget what we're there to do, as Jeffrey tells us:
When great visual design occurs ... I fall so in love with it that I can, if I'm not careful, forget my primary responsibility as a UX designer and creative director.
One way to avoid this, says Frank Chimero, is to shift your focus to a different part of the project, where visual design does not play a part. Doing this part well makes the visual design easier, so it's win-win.
I find that the more input I have in the content and strategy of the project, the less burden I place on the aesthetics. Perhaps this is because I believe the aesthetic of the work should be an extension of its objectives, so if you get the strategy right, the look follows.
In Thinking With Type, Ellen Lupton gives similar advice:
Think more, design less. Many desperate acts of design (including gradients, drop shadows, and the gratuitous use of transparency) are perpetrated in the absence of a strong concept. A good idea provides a framework for design decisions, guiding the work.
Just as designers should be focused, the features and elements you design should be focused too. Whether it's a headline, an illustration, a panel, a card, or a checkout flow, that thing should focus on doing its job well, as Frank tell us. This focus helps you to avoid a design that doesn't get its message across clearly, or doesn't help the user in the right way. It can turn simple design into complicated design.
Spend a lot of time choosing that one thing that a piece of design or an illustration should try to do. Then, work your ass off trying to figure out the absolute best way to do that one thing.
This idea, that you should only communicate one thing, is important. Ken Segall explains why:
Be mindful of the fact that every time you attempt to communicate more than one thing, you're splintering the attention of those you're talking to — whether they're customers or colleagues. If it's necessary to deliver multiple messages, find a common theme that unites them all and push hard on that idea. You want people to remember what you say — and the more you cram into your communication, the more difficult you make it for them. Remember that a sea of choices is no choice at all. The more you can minimize your proposition, the more attractive it will be.
One of the principles behind Basecamp's products, Jonas Downey told me, is that they work hard to split concepts so that each part is simple and easy to understand. This is a process of making sure that each part of your product is focused.
Having a strong editorial sensibility, and knowing when to split complex concepts into simpler individual parts. This one is more of an art than a science, but we have a good instinct for breaking down problems until they can be easily understood in simple UI flows.
Focus can also be created more literally, in visual design. The simpler your visual design, Mandy Brown tells us, the easier it will be for your user to focus on what you need them to focus on. A "Buy now" button surrounded by visual fluff cannot be as easy to see as one in the middle of a sea of whitespace.
Whitespace is not so much a luxury as it is a prerequisite. Every pixel of whitespace around the text can help the reader stay focused instead of wandering off.
John Maeda makes this point sound so simple that it seems obvious. It's clear when you look around the internet that it's not obvious to enough people.
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The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention on what remains. More white space means that less information is presented. In turn, proportionately more attention shall be paid to that which is made less available. When there is less, we appreciate everything much more ... Creating white space ... enables the foreground to stand out from the background.