You probably know that putting too much food on your plate is usually a bad idea. Since research indicates that you’re more likely to overeat if you fill your plate, it’s not a good thing for your waistline. It’s also not a good thing for your eyes. If there’s no focal point, the food can overwhelm you, and you’ll find yourself lost in a vortex of scary, calorie-filled nightmares.
You’re not going to process your eating experience; you’re simply going to start at the least offensive corner and chow down until it’s all gone and your stomach’s about to burst. That’s why, when you go out to nicer restaurants, the chef portions out your food in small amounts, so that you can take your time and absorb not just the actual eating, but also the sensory experience – the sights, the smells, even the sounds. Yes, people. Food is complicated.
Today, I’m going to talk about simplifying your designs using the very same principles a chef uses to ensure that you have the most pleasant eating experience possible. And just like you’re much more likely to return to a restaurant that serves you an experience, rather than a mess, your users will be more likely to do the same when your designs are clean, strong, and simplified.
We humans are programmed to make things complex. In the field of cultural anthropology, there’s overwhelming evidence of this fact, as societies around the world have progressed over the millennia from simple (think ‘hunter-gatherer’ type societies) to complex (modern “post-industrial” countries). It’s in our DNA to want to add on rather than take away, which can make the average designer’s job pretty difficult.
From your end as a designer, it’s generally quite hard to be objective about which information or design elements are “necessary,” versus which are not. Getting a second opinion can help sometimes, but if the person you’re asking is not a seasoned designer, they might not have the experience to tell you what’s not working and why.
When I’m working on a project that’s gotten too out of hand, I usually stop and take out the notes I took at the beginning of my process. The mind maps, diagrams, and lists that illustrate precisely what my main focus was supposed to be for the project. It’s inevitable that you’ll lose sight of your main focus at least once during the design process.
That’s okay, as long as you refer to your notes and refresh your memory. Designing around your main focus helps you to be more discerning about the content you include in your design, as it makes it clear what’s directly related to that main focus and what isn’t.
Use the Pareto Principle
The Pareto principle is something that’s been getting quite a bit of attention in recent years, thanks to personal development gurus like Tim Ferriss. But just in case you haven’t yet heard the basic idea behind it, here’s a quick run-down.
The Pareto principle, or the “80-20 Rule,” as it’s sometimes known, basically states that 20% of any given element is responsible for 80% of the results, and vice-versa. Designers love the 80-20 rule, since it’s so applicable to the design process, particularly in those areas where information or sales are at the heart of the design goals.
While you’re designing your product, website, or other deliverables, here are two important questions to ask yourself so that you don’t “over-design” those elements that don’t need it, and so that you can keep your focus on the 20% of the elements that are the most important:
- Who, specifically, is most likely to benefit the most from this design element?
I’ve talked at length about narrowing down your career focus to zero in on one or two specific markets. This question is one you can ask yourself at any time during your creative process.
If you devote time to researching exactly the target markets you’re best equipped to serve, you’ll have a much easier time finding and understanding the needs of clients. And when it comes time to simplify your designs for this target group, you’ll know exactly what they’re looking for, how they look for it, and how to provide it to them simply.
- How can I deliver the most value to this group of people using the least number of steps?
As an extension of the above idea, your process will become much simpler when you begin focusing on the number of steps it will take your users to get from your design to the information or product they’re looking for.
It’s helpful to write it out in a literal list; start with the key action step on your website, brochure, poster, etc., and document exactly what needs to happen from there to make the sale. Once you’ve done that, the path usually becomes very clear in terms of what’s actually needed to get the user to his or her destination, and what’s not.
Smart It Up
A lot of the advice you may read about simplifying your designs might make it seem like designers think their users are the stupidest people in the world. Skim a few articles and you’ll see what I mean – everything is concerned with making the important elements as obvious as they can possibly be, so that the user doesn’t have to use their brain for anything.
It can actually make you start to feel a bit sorry for the average user at first, since designers seem to think so little of them. But if you understand the underlying principles behind this philosophy, you’ll begin to realize that, not only do designers not think their users are stupid, they’re actually being very smart about creating an experience that caters to the needs of the very top of the user “hierarchy.”
It’s not that you should automatically assume that people are stupid. Rather, your assumption should be that everyone is smart – each of your users is far too busy living productive, interesting lives to waste time where they don’t need to.
Once you embrace this mentality, it will become easier for you to zero in on exactly what makes these smart, productive, interesting people tick, and how you can help them absorb the exact information they need to go on about their awesome lives. This has the added effect of allowing you to go on about your awesome life as well.
Your users should be able to get to the specific information they need with as little effort as possible. Whether that involves less reading, scrolling, or interactivity, make sure you keep your focus on the actual steps required to encourage the biggest results from the least amount of action.