Simple design both requires and enables focus. In order to create and release a simple design, the organisation behind it needs to be focused on delivering the right design for the right reasons. That design needs to enable the user to do the right things. As Jeffrey Zeldman tells us, it's easy to fall into the trap of complicating design and technology. Complicated design seems to be like a Siren call for some people.
Good communication strives for clarity. Design is its most brilliant when it appears most obvious—most simple. The question for web designers should never be how complex can we make it. But that's what it has become. Just as, in pursuit of “delight,” we forget the true joy reliable, invisible interfaces can bring, so too, in chasing job security, do we pile on the platform requirements, forgetting that design is about solving business and customer problems ... and that baseline skills never go out of fashion.
Flashy visual design is beautiful, difficult, and impresses other people. You feel great when you do it. It's no surprise many people choose to spend time on it. It can also make us forget what we're there to do, as Jeffrey tells us:
When great visual design occurs ... I fall so in love with it that I can, if I'm not careful, forget my primary responsibility as a UX designer and creative director.
One way to avoid this, says Frank Chimero, is to shift your focus to a different part of the project, where visual design does not play a part. Doing this part well makes the visual design easier, so it's win-win.
I find that the more input I have in the content and strategy of the project, the less burden I place on the aesthetics. Perhaps this is because I believe the aesthetic of the work should be an extension of its objectives, so if you get the strategy right, the look follows.
Just as designers should be focused, the features and elements you design should be focused too. Whether it's a headline, an illustration, a panel, a card, or a checkout flow, that thing should focus on doing its job well, as Frank tell us. This focus helps you to avoid a design that doesn't get its message across clearly, or doesn't help the user in the right way. It can turn simple design into complicated design.
Spend a lot of time choosing that one thing that a piece of design or an illustration should try to do. Then, work your ass off trying to figure out the absolute best way to do that one thing.
One of the principles behind Basecamp's products, Jonas Downey told me, was that they work hard to split concepts so that each part is simple and easy to understand. This is a process of making sure that each part of your product is focused.
Having a strong editorial sensibility, and knowing when to split complex concepts into simpler individual parts. This one is more of an art than a science, but we have a good instinct for breaking down problems until they can be easily understood in simple UI flows.
Focus can also be created more literally, in visual design. The simpler your visual design, Mandy Brown tells us, the easier it will be for your user to focus on what you need them to focus on. A "Buy now" button surrounded by visual fluff cannot be as easy to see as one in the middle of a sea of whitespace.
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Whitespace is not so much a luxury as it is a prerequisite. Every pixel of whitespace around the text can help the reader stay focused instead of wandering off.