One of the core tenets of Japanese minimalism is the idea that less is more. The first time I traveled to Tokyo I was introduced to this concept specifically on my tour of ramen shops. One of the things that stood out to me was the utmost simplicity of the menu. Often times there would be one dish that had been painstakingly cultivated over the years. No substitutions, no additional choices, nothing else to complicate your enjoyment of this one dish. This simplistic approach was not the result of laziness or a lack of creativity, in fact it's the opposite. A lifetime of refinement created an experience that is so simple, unexpected and insanely memorable.
As designers, we all strive for a similar simplicity and refinement in our work. The design concept of "Less is more" was popularized in 1976 by Dieter Rams who created his 10 principles for good design. The tenth principle is one that every designer lives and breathes: "Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better—because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity." A well-designed product should be so good that the design is barely noticeable. By omitting the unnecessary, says Rams, the essential factors come to the forefront: the products become quiet, pleasing, comprehensible, and long lasting. The idea of simplicity may be one we all strive for, but simplicity is hard. Simplicity takes time to perfect.
One of the reasons that simplicity is particularly difficult today is that the majority of content platforms are inherently the polar opposite of simple. Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and even the news present users an endless barrage of colors, themes, and content, with very little consideration of whether this actually helps the person using the service. The more scrolling the better. The catchier and fast paced the TikTok dance, the more clicks. It seems that in many ways the concept of simplicity has been lost as technology advances. So how do we as product designers succeed? How do we keep the user first and create products which last the test of time and are inherently memorable?
To start, we have to fully understand the ask. At its core, what problem are we as designers trying to solve? What are the clear goals? What does success look like? By fully understanding what the actual problem is and keeping it at the fore, it allows us to find elegant solutions to complex issues. Often, products emerge from large corporations, where many stakeholders exist, each with very different goals. Understanding who the key decision maker is, as well as what success to the business looks like, rather than what success looks like for each individual team member, adds focus. It the designer’s job to distill all of the potential goals and KPI's into clear and actionable takeaways. If we as designers cannot clearly explain the problem that we are solving, then how could we expect to design an elegant solution?
Once we have a clear understanding of the project goals, a major part of the process is understanding the content. Where is the data coming from? How is it organized before coming to us and does a simpler way to catalogue and categorize the content exist? At a high level, once the data structure is understandable and prioritized, creating a page brief is a very useful tool to help with prioritization. This allows the team to agree on clear priorities of each page, section, or module of a digital experience. A user who visits a page will only take away one or two key points; what are those points we’re trying to communicate? A single state of an interface cannot solve every problem, we must focus on the key things that we want the user to remember or do. This focus is the foundation of all simple solutions.
One thing that can be hard to overcome is the tendency of team members to continually "improve" or "add to" the design. I often see this when a project transitions from interaction design to visual design. Often times the interaction designer has a clear understanding of project goals, the complexity of the data and has worked for weeks to simplify and solve for this complexity. If the interaction design achieves the desired level of simplicity, then the role of aesthetics—the visual look-and-feel—becomes one of branding and building and emotional connection between user and product. It should, above all, not interfere with the proper functioning of a design.
Visual design always risks interfering with usability because aesthetics can be highly subjective. What I like may be very different from what you like. And that's ok. But at its core you have to make sure that the ask is coming through. Make sure that the goals are not lost. By asking "Is this design making it easier for the end user to understand or is is simply pretty?" it helps to clarify whether a given design solution is actually working. As Dieter Rams said "The usability of a product is a direct result of the designer's ability to anticipate the needs of its user." Design for design sake doesn't help anyone.
Simplicity in design is more than solving problems and presenting the content in an understandable way. It also means creating a design that is easy for other team members to understand, to pass along to another who may take the design from you. Sustainable design is modular, reusable, and easy to develop. It's not just about you but every person on your team that will touch the pages before the go live. Creating a clean file structure, organized components, reusability of modules, and a design system that works long term adds to the overall concept of simplicity. It's not just about creating a product the end user understands, it is also about creating a streamlined and simple process to bring it to life—one that works for your entire team, and users. And remember, truly simple easy-to-understand is usually easier to technically build, because more design patterns are reused (and therefore only need to be coded once), and unnecessary features don’t have to be build in the first place. Another reason why less is more.
Simplicity may be what we all strive for as designers, but the bottom line is simple is hard to do. It doesn't come overnight. Design is an endless exercise in trial and failure, constantly finding and rejecting things that don’t work, until the only thing left is the perfect solution. Ramen may take a lifetime of refinement in order to achieve the perfect balance. It comes from years of practice and requires you to continually challenge yourself and your team members to find solutions that may not be obvious. A continuous pushing for perfection beyond the point when many would have said 'that will do'. A responsibility to create designs and process that are streamlined, sustainable. It's not easy, but it is worth the effort.