Is Less Always More? Getting To The Bottom Of Minimalism

We’ve been told time and time again that simple design is better than complex design. Everyone from Seth Godin to Steve Jobs has expressed their feelings on the matter, and the consensus seems to be that true simplicity and minimalism are the way to go.

Remove everything that doesn’t absolutely need to be there, and you will inevitably arrive at the perfect design. But is that always true? We’re going to test this theory of less is more, and get to the bottom of why it’s so universally accepted.

Remove What Doesn’t Work?

It’s definitely true that removing elements of a design that aren’t fitting in with the end goal is the best, most obvious way to simplify a design. But what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean you should just keep taking things out until there’s only the bare minimum left?

How do you know when to stop removing design elements?

Richard Seymour of Semourpowell argues that design is more than simply a mechanical game of addition and subtraction. "You shouldn’t be putting more into something than it needs," Seymour explains in the Design Insights video series. "But the fact is, the need may be an emotional need."

What Seymour is getting at is that, sometimes, what doesn’t seem to "work" from a pure design perspective may actually be vital from a psychological perspective.

Simple vs. Easy

Take, for example, your favorite web browser. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that, for the majority of you, that will be either Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. Those are the two most widely used browsers in the world, but are they the most efficient from a design point of view?

Well, no. Google’s Chrome browser, I’d argue, is probably the most streamlined in terms of design when it comes to mainstream browsers. But it’s not the most popular browser, even though everybody who uses Google knows about it. There are certain features built into the IE and Firefox software that users are convinced they need and refuse to go without.

Therefore, they are necessary. Emotionally necessary.

What Do They Need?

Paying attention to your users’ emotional needs is one of the most critical jobs you have as a designer. You need to be able to judge when a design should be reduced down to the barest elements without angering the vast majority of the people who are using it. Emotionally, they may need to have more options, even if it’s not true. They may simply want the comfort of knowing that they have multiple ways of arriving at a solution.

Think of Adobe Photoshop. There are at least 10 different ways to do just about everything in that program, and the majority of its users wouldn’t have it any other way. Think about what happens when Adobe makes just the slightest adjustment to one of its functions or tools. If you guessed "maniacal howls of protest", then you’d be right.

Even if the change is for the better, there will always be a vocal group of users who will violently protest it, purely for emotional reasons.

The Functionality Of Users’ Needs

Do people need an absolute, bare bones interface? Do they need something that’s so simple and elegant that it brings them to tears of joy every time they look at it? Or do they need something that does the job it needs to do – something that works?

You the designer may be viewing your design from an aesthetic perspective, but don’t forget that (most of the time) your users are looking at it from a purely functional perspective. They are looking to use your design, not discuss its artistic merits.

This is a very difficult lesson for even the most experienced designers to learn. How many times have you seen an award winning ad campaign, mobile app, or book cover design and been completely perplexed as to how it solves any kind of design problem?

Sometimes, you may feel as though the design world rewards beauty over functionality, but the real proof of a design’s success lies with the people it’s supposed to be helping. The examples of gorgeously designed, award-winning failures in design history are numerous enough to fill entire volumes.

What Do You Think?

Do you think that simplicity and minimalism should be the end all, be all of a designer’s creative vision? Are there other ways to approach design that truly value function over form, while still being considered "good design"?