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Simplicity
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 35]

Simplicity, not simpleness nor simplification, is one of the fundamentals of high quality visual design. You can’t achieve it however, without working for it.

To speak about the importance of simplicity can seem superfluous because it appears to be obvious. But the key point about simplicity is based on a deep understanding of the matter you want to transmit and the ability to do it in a clear and concise way. Obtaining the maximum communication effect with the minimum energy.

When someone solves a problem completely, in a simple way, we usually say that this is an elegant solution. A good design is one that is there but you don't notice it. To make it without addressing the simplicity issue is unthinkable. A complicated and obscure design, even if it solves the problem, requires an excessive amount of time and energy from the user.

Simplicity has some noticeable advantages that Mullet and Sano (see the previous article) summarise in their book "Visual design" as

  1. Approachability: Simple designs are easier to understand and favour the immediate use and further exploration beyond a particular resource of the design.
  2. Recognizability: they are easier to recognise and to assimilate as they include less superfluous visual information.
  3. Immediacy: Simple designs have a broader and larger impact precisely because their ease of understanding make their recognition immediate with a minimum conscious effort.
  4. Usability: Because of the previous point, they are also the easiest to use.

At the end, with these four points, we are circling around the same thing: designs made in an elegant and simple way require a minimum conscious effort of assimilation. They tune into the natural way of doing things of the average human being, that is the final target, at the end.

For this reason they serve our purposes effectively, as they are elemental to assimilate. On the contrary complicated designs oblige us to make an effort of adaptation and to incorporate elements that appear artificial and forced to us.

On the other hand, simplicity is not the product of invention or intuition, simplicity has to be achieved. It appears obvious that talent combined with experience can mean that seasoned professionals easily produce optimum results with an apparently minimal effort.

Nevertheless, simplicity is the product of a conscious work targeted to the simultaneous minimisation of the elements that constitute the whole and the relations that exist between them without sacrificing at any moment the essence. Respecting the indispensable parts and eliminating the superfluous.

Again Mullet and Sano propose three principles:

  • Unity : the different elements of a design have to produce a coherent whole strongly oriented to the purpose we are pursuing.
  • Refinement: the elements have to be refined with aim of focusing the viewer's attention on the essential aspect, eliminating what is accessory or artificial.
  • Adjustment : of the solution to the communication problem we intend to solve.

Elegance and the interest for simplicity have a cultural component, especially in the artistic side of design (I don't think that this article would have roused much interest in the Baroque age). Nevertheless, if we pretend to mix form and function in an effective way we can't ignore simplicity nowadays.

It's not a coincidence that the most powerful symbols use to be also the simplest ones.

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