The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

When less is more

– May 24th, 2006 –

Less is more. We’ve all heard that saying a thousand times. What does it mean though? For me it’s the result of a particular way of working.

In October last year, Jason Fried of 37Signals gave a 10 minute talk at the Web 2.0 show about, well, ‘lessness’. In an interesting talk, Jason described five things which you need less of (which you think you actually need more of). A lot of what he said made absolute sense from a business perspective. I’d like to add to that some thoughts on what you need less of in graphic design.

The Spark

What triggered my thoughts on this, in addition to the recent debate about graphic design on the web (and yesterday’s post on SvN regarding Don Norman’s thoughts), was Malcolm Gladwell’s fantastic book, Blink.

In the book, Gladwell describes how a doctor called Brendan Reilly developed an algorithm for making the diagnosis of heart attacks easier for doctors. The algorithm, based on months of statistical research, was based on three factors which Reilly would propose doctors use to diagnose chest pain. Reilly proposed that factors such as extensive patient history shouldn’t play a part in diagnosing acute chest pain. Of course, the other doctors have a difficult time accepting this as a way of working.

The idea behind this conclusion is about removing distraction. It’s not about making things simple, or reducing complexity, but increasing focus on the immediate problem.

It really got me thinking.

As I mentioned, there’s been an ongoing discussion about the effectiveness of Google. I’m not going to dwell on this too long (as a lot of it has already been said), but I think the same concept applies here. Google works because of a lack of distraction, not because it’s simple. A search engine like Google is complex, as it’s other services. Where Google succeeds is by removing obstacles in the user’s path. They want to search, they’re shown a search box and results. No distractions.

The same can be applied in graphic design.

Five things

So, following on from Jason’s idea of doing more with less, here’s my five things you can do more with less in graphic design.

Less Noise

There’s too much visual noise. Whatever you’re designing, if it’s a magazine cover, the latest web app, or a orange juice label, how do you stand out in the crowd? How do you compete visually? This is a tough job, as any designer will tell you, and the natural reaction is to add more noise. More colour, more type, more expensive production and ultimately, more money.

I’m not really talking about minimalism. More like restraint. When you feel this coming on—and I’m sure we all do—try and focus on the problem and the visual steps you need to take to solve it. This usually sorts me out and gets me on track again.

Less Distraction

This is as much about interaction design as it is about graphic design. Is the solution (the design), fit for purpose? Does it answer the brief? What could you remove that just isn’t needed? I ask myself these questions, especially the last one, a lot. What could the client do without? It’s always a natural reaction to add. Complexity, visual noise, colour etc. They all increase distraction.

Fewer Typefaces

Erik Spiekermann once said ‘You need as many typefaces as you need ties’. True, but not all on the same page/screen. It’s a great idea to increase your typeface vocabulary - emmerse yourself in the various type foundries books (Linotype has a great book available). At some point though, find a few typefaces you really like (more often than not, this will happen by accident as you find yourself using them all the time), and really get to know them. Get to know the quirks of that particular cut, such as the kerning and the fact that the ‘fi’ ligature doesn’t look quite right. Soon after, you’ll find yourself using less typefaces, but being very familiar with the ones you do use.

Fewer Trends

Trends are fashionable. Sometimes they are a solution to a brief, but not always. Like bad furniture, they have their place, but the trick is knowing where.

The web has a fashion turnaround similar to the fashion industry I guess. It’s a fast paced environment and industry leaders set the trends. But I guess, like fashion, this can be exhausting for a designer (and a client). A classic, timeless design is almost always a more successful solution to one which has all the latest bells and whistles.

Less looking in the future and more in the past

A lot of designers are well versed in graphic design history. A lot aren’t. I guess it’s all about building up a visual vocabulary from past experience. Thing is, if all your experience of graphic design is from what’s around you now, you have much less to draw on in terms of inspiration. Read some books, visit exhibitions, maybe even start a weird hobby like collecting old Penguin books!

When less is more

Less is more isn’t always about minimalism. It isn’t always about simplicity either. For me, less is more is about clarity—whether that’s a search engine, a teapot or a really great plate of food. Clarity is vital in graphic design and without it, well, it may as well just be art. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Filed in: design.

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