Simplicity has almost become an intrinsic value associated with design these days. If you ask the question to a group of people, “what makes a good design?” you’ll likely hear something like “clean” or “simple” in response (try it!). And, more often than not, you’ll probably hear people cite Apple Inc. as the prime example of why it’s good. Truth is, simplicity in design is a cultural thing and it hasn’t always been the preferred design choice. There’s a long history to that, but that’s for another post.
What we really want to know is why simplicity in design works. Why does simplifying an image or a concept make designs more memorable? Is it because complexity confuses people? Is simplicity a better way of “dumbing down” information so that the public can understand it?
While there may be some truth to simplifying complex information to reach broader audiences, there is something much more interesting at play here. Comic artist and visual communication theorist Scott McCloud made a very persuasive argument: when we simplify visuals, we actually amplify meaning. Consider the abstracted image of President Obama, for example, during his first presidential election campaign. The image has been significantly simplified–in terms of colors, pixels, gradients, etc.–from its original photograph. What this image does, though, is focus on greater meaning. By simplifying the image, we see the person portrayed less as a very specific human being and more as an icon. This image says more than “Barack Obama.” It says patriotism, Americana, power, future. When we view complex images, we actually have a harder time depicting complex cultural meanings-simplified visuals pull us away from the details and into the realm of ideologies.
If you think of other design choices, the effect is similar. We associate logos and icons with whole sets of ideologies (Nike swoosh says athleticism, heroism, and a can-do attitude; the EPA logo says save the earth, or, to some, imposing on our rights!) Meaning is often amplified through a reduction of information. Why? Because we, the viewers, have to fill in the gaps in complexity with our own backgrounds, political bents, values, and worldviews. We reach beyond the superficial and into the world of the abstract but more powerful meanings.
Let me take this one step further. If simplifying complexity is akin to moving from realism to the abstract, consider some of the most successful films in the last century. If you look at IMDB’s Top USA Box Office List , you’ll see a trend: 17 of the top 20 grossing movies of all time are either cartoons or films that abstract reality (like superhero movies). When we move away from reality, we have the ability superimpose values and cultural ideologies on the communication medium. There are broader meanings possible because we are not stuck on viewing realistic details. It’s one reason that The Simpsons television show has been so successful–through abstraction of the nuclear family and through simplification of guest stars, personalities and cultural stigmas are amplified.
With this in mind, simplifying a design doesn’t immediately dumbing-down communication for viewers. Quite the contrary, it gives them something much more meaningful to consider. Truly effective simplicity keeps in mind the idea that amplification is not only possible, but valuable.
Scott McCloud. Understanding Comics. 1993.