Sketched BLOG

"If you blog it, you'll regret it. If you don't blog it, you'll regret it. You'll regret it whether you blog it or not."

the language of design, how to speak about design ideas and the example of Less is more

Conversations, characters, and incidents portrayed in this post are fictitious and for illustrative purposes only. They do not represent people I work with at present, but might represent some I have worked with in the past.  No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. This is a spoof disclaimer ;) if you haven't realised yet.


Less is more, that lovely little nugget of design principle goodness is probably one of the most misunderstood ideas in application. Less is more, I've been hearing this a lot lately. As a designer I know what 'less is more' means to me, but at times I'm left wondering what it means to the non-designers who quote it. Maybe it's just me but it seems to be used to justify everything and anything.

At times I listen to non-designers make bold statements on design issues and because I have been an artist and designer for some time now I can see they're missing the point or are limited in their understanding of a concept. But how to help non-designers learn or develop a deeper understanding? Anyone doing freelance work or even regular design work knows that education is a large part of the effort one has to put into a project. It can be a challenge to deal with these situations, people can so easily mistake you for being argumentative, arrogant or bombastic. Especially when they feel threatened - no one likes coming across as not knowing something even though we all suffer from this very human-like indictment. Even more so in this age where everyone has an opinion and are so quick to verbalise them. It would be great if people could just chill and not feel the anxiety of fight or flight. I think sincerely creating discussion by asking a question or engaging in dialogue rather than jumping in and trying to show them the mistake in what they're doing or thinking is the way to go but even that might go wrong. Still, it's an opportunity to learn about other's perceptions and re-engage in art and design 'truth'.

Humans can be guilty of suffering from a kind of blindness that shuts down learning, whether its because of pride or because they're just bashing ahead trying to get the job done, it can stop progress or inflame situations. I remember my own early arrogant days as an eager art student, I had some talent and a drive to achieve but I lacked character. One evening the head of the Art and Design department put me in my place - embarrassingly he told me off in front of some of my friends saying that I still had lots to learn. Of course he was right, my ego was so big back then that I didn't receive his honest criticism. In my mind for years afterwards he was to blame until I learnt to let go of pettiness and stop fighting. There is nothing one can do about people who suffer from hubris. What one can do is work on one's own attitude and try not to spiral into cynicism or kick back because of one's own pride. Try be the bigger person and always stay open.

There are other challenges for design or art professionals in this Post-modern era. This wider problem at play is becoming widespread and will dummy down society in general because of it. We live in the age of the anti-professional where people's skills and experience are disregarded. It seems that anybody feels and thinks they have the right to be an expert because all they have to do is just youtube a subject and then magically they become an expert as a result, but most things in Art and Design are learnt over time and at great personal investment. Like all of "the arts" getting good at something takes time and dedication. We would find it laughable if after watching a youtube video about playing the piano someone should stand up and suddenly claim being a master pianist. Just listening to them play would quickly show this not to be the case. Yet, this is what is happening in the sphere of Art and Design. In Visual Arts though we can explain this slow slide, now heightened in this Post-modern world. We have a history to cope with, because of Modern Art's (1860-1970) emphasis on personal expression rather than application of the vast principles, rules and tenements of art and design in a skilful manner we are now taught from primary school that, no matter what, everyone's expression is 'art'. This has both helped people access art and created a huge misconception about art, and subsequently design. We carry this attitude into our adult lives; however If everything is art, then nothing is art. Unfortunately, we did this to ourselves. In it's search to be free from authoritarian and creativity crushing bodies like the salon set up by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, Visual Arts accidentally killed itself and thrust the world into our resulting confusion. Graphic Design institutions tried to bring back art based principles taken from Bauhaus (1919-1933) in the 1960's, in a way, this was an attempt to bring back some formalism into commercial art by emphasising the forms and principles into design practice within Visual Arts - but this was eroded away in the 1990's by a phrenetic focus on learning software. These new tools vaguely reflect the ideas and concepts behind them, but without a formal understanding remain locked away from a user. Just ask a user a well placed question and you'll quickly realise that there are no foundations to their endeavours. Result: People who think they have a high natural aesthetic feel just as informed as people who have invested years into the study and application of art and design principles. Interesting, isn't it.

As an artist and designer you are always learning. That is the nature of the creative process. This is the truth, you're continually learning. Design and Art knowledge which is often experience led is an ever deepening spiral into complex but simple truths. We can learn from anyone if we consider personal points of view, but I also know that the Visual arts (art and design) is a real field of study and a profession built not merely on opinion but deepening knowledge of its formal elements. I'm not trying to disparage non-designers or non-artists, trying to beat them down by trying some alpha dog bullshit ego-trip (I hate that sort of thing). The truth is I really love art and design (always have) and know the depth of thought and experience we pay to understand our craft - the dedication needed to move skills forward. I used to feel frustrated by people who glibly try to sell design as something easily done by anyone independently of the cost which comes with experience and building skill level, now I understand that they either just don't know any better or that they are having a knee-jerk reaction fuelled by their own personal issues.

Coming back to 'less is more'. I believe in the principle that sometimes 'less is more', but sometimes less is in fact less. I was having a conversation with someone about some design work we were mutually connected to, they had experience in word processing (not design). Some time into the conversation I realised  that their idea of the 'less is more' principle had to do with doing nothing to content or to do a minimal amount to the content - some basic styling, etc. They tried to sell this as a difference in style, another go to word to justify the most bizarre ideas. This is not what is meant by the principle 'less is more' in design. I think that the popularity of the interior design style labelled 'American Minimalism' bears some blame, it has been misappropriated by the public and it's ethic has seeped into popular culture even overtaking a proper understanding of it as a visual art movement (Minimalism), which is essentially a form of abstract art, with its syncretistic theology. It's funny that Minimalist art is most often sneered at for being so simple that 'my kids could do it' by the same non-designers who controversially extol 'less is more' as a great design idea. This proves that there is a disconnect in the public's understanding of the concept. 'Less is more' however is about creating a fusion - a unity. It is about taking limited elements and using those elements to create a new thing, a unified design that beautifully and simply communicates the intended message. This is a design principle designers use to create logos, adverts, ui designs, website designs, illustrations and so on. The idea is that simplifying the message and restricting elements will help create a much more direct and impactful visual design. By elements I mean the forms of design (point, line, plane, etc.) not just assets or copy. However, refining to a simple message, limiting content and then creating a design that speaks volumes simply in a unified manner takes a lot of work and 'visual design thinking' - it takes knowing how to design by using every 'trick' in the book and by this I don't mean being able to use a software package. 

So how does 'less is more' become such a mess and misappropriated by many non-designers. This is where the confusion happens. Visual Design is misunderstood, people don't understand that concepts in art and graphic design are different from concepts in other fields or 'everyday life'. So when people port over what they think is a design idea using their own understanding of language they cross over fields and get things mixed up. For example when a designer or artist speaks about honesty people might think they're trying not to lie about something because that is what honesty means in everyday terms. What the designer might mean is not over cooking something, making something more elaborate than it needs to be. This is a simple and perhaps not strong enough example but hopefully you get the point. The same kind of thing happens in the 'less is more' principle. Making less more in writing copy would probably mean taking a lump of information, and doing a synopsis of it ensuring each word counts. This represents an economy (another design term). Cutting down words and simplifying the language structures (which takes skill and artistry) is making something like a written piece 'less' but 'more'. In design, visual art and design, it is not as 'simple' a concept as this. Application entails more than just deleting, not doing much to content or doing nothing at all to it. It is a value principle, an approach and could begin with a conscious choice to limit 'elements' such as copy, forms of design or other assets and then suddenly "Less is more" becomes about the weaving of those elements into an effective and simple Unity  - visual message or design. There is a lot of work done here. This isn't done by just merely not doing anything to content, limiting what is done to something or deleting things. That would be to misunderstand the principle and in a very real sense oversimplifying 'less is more' in visual art and design.

I don't often hear people speak a lot about other design principles such as ockham's razor, uncanny valley, factor of safety and so on. I still suspect the public's misunderstanding of Minimalism especially in the concept's interior design incarnation is to blame for 'less is more' being an easy thing for people to pull at when speaking about their opinions on design, but I'm not sure if that is the only reason. 'Simplification' is an attractive thing for us humans especially when coupled with 'cleanliness is next to godliness' in our living situations. Working on simplyfying something is a worthwhile practice but not necessarily universal. We don't blindly fall into design with sweeping formulaic statements. Incidentally there is an 'alternative' to 'less is more', not all projects are naturally suited to a 'less is more' design ethic so of course there are alternatives. There is the principle of 'visual density' which pushes using more elements and works just as well as 'less is more' when used beautifully and for the right reasons. 

Respect others, understand the what and why of your point of view, be open and listen but also speak about your own concepts. Try communicate what you know and your experience in a humble way. If people are prone to hubris don't get down, move on and hopefully they'll see that you love art and design and are open to dialogue but if they don't at least you have the comfort of knowing its not your fault. Avoid disruptive people, those are the kinds of people who only have negative criticism to offer and no solutions, or just want to be in control.