Trends come and go, but the words “simple” and “clean” continue to be uttered by designers. These concepts surpass trends and that’s because design, unlike fine art, is all about communication. If the message is unclear, the most beautiful of designs is a failure.
And that’s where people get into trouble. They’re very aware of the need to communicate. And there’s a lot they want to say. But with each line that gets added to copy, with each element that is placed onto a logo, and with each burst that gets wrenched into an ad, the message is muddied. The desire to communicate many things is understandable. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not realistic. The reality is that the more messages you add to a design, the less likely the viewer will invest time into comprehending it.
And that’s the crux of the whole “less is more” concept. Let’s be honest. When someone takes the time to read ten bullet points included in a cluttered and busy magazine ad, they will understand more of that company’s message than if they had read a single compelling and clear title. But when was the last time you read all the copy in a copy-heavy ad? Unless it’s a for a product you’re already interested in, never! But you will take the time to read a one-sentence message that is presented in a compelling, clean way.
The other aspect of this is retention. Again, the person who reads all ten bullet points gains a lot of information. But one month later, ask that person to tell you everything they learned from the ad. Would they remember more than the person who read a single message within the context of a memorable design? Would they even remember the ad at all?
In the world of design, when we say less is more, we’re basically saying two things:
- A clean and simple message will be noticed and digested more times than one that is busy and cluttered.
- More people will retain your message long-term when you don’t overwhelm them.
And so you find a balance. I’m not saying there needs to be a single message, although many times that’s exactly what you should shoot for. It depends on what you’re creating. Is it a logo? Go for a single message. Is it a full-page ad? You have space for multiple messages. However you still need to decide what the single most important message of the bunch is, and then make sure that message cannot be missed.
Consider someone who lectures for one hour. If they drone on with point after point, few of those points will be retained long term. If, however, the lecturer begins by announcing his main points and keeps returning to those points, backing them up throughout his time in front of the microphone, he will have a good chance of successful communication.
The converse is not necessarily true. We can’t assume you’ll be heard more if you say less. To a degree this is true—if the speaker/communicator already has a good reputation. If you represent a respected brand, your focused communication will be noticed even without any visual fanfare. When I’m in a group setting with a quiet person I admire, I listen very closely when that person does speak.
But even when there’s no reputation to speak of, if the message is told in an impactful way, it will be noticed and retained. Impact does not require large type or bold type. This is where creativity comes in using the various elements of design. But no matter which elements you utilize, the goal of creating an impactful design is very likely to be met when the end product is both simple and clean.