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Simplicity: It's a state of mind

7 minute read

As a designer, I strive to produce designs and design tools that are easy to use and simple to follow. I want to give people the best possible experience when using what I produce, and to do so means employing a particular mindset. I call it a simplicity mindset.

Design is communication. When designing, we should always question whether enough has been done to communicate efficiently, and try to cut out clutter and present work as succinctly as possible.

Whether it is communicating complex business structures through journey maps, stripping out unnecessary design elements (visual noise), or even considering the way we talk about our work, our aim should be to reduce unnecessary complexity and ensure effective communication.

Yet, making our work easy to use, or creating a seamless experience, is hard to achieve. We are under pressure to deliver on time and budget, leading to ruthless prioritisation. Here’s how, using a simplicity mindset, we can mitigate complexity and ensure maximum impact in our final deliverables or presentations.

1. Making connections - usable deliverables count

Tools such as personas and journey maps are established weapons of a designer’s armoury. They are essential design tools used to understand and illustrate a clients’ customer base, through personas, and complex structures and services via journey maps.

But over time, they have become more than just design tools by becoming key client deliverables - journey maps, in particular, have become very large, portraying more and more detail - but do clients actually use them?

Over complex work can look very overwhelming and hard to use, and often need a commentary to communicate them.

Ways to simplify - benefits of taking a simpler approach

It is ok to have complex journey maps but keep them as a tool for the design team. When sharing with client, consider reducing the amount of swim lanes and copy, making sure the size of the font is legible. It is also helpful to make them visual, taking more of a storyboard approach, pulling out the essential points. Try sticking your journey map on the wall and ask, would I get off my chair and engage with it?

For clients, being able to prioritise what they should do next and understand their own customers better is key. Taking a more simplistic approach to journey maps makes them easier to follow and helps clients use them. As a result, you will find clients get out of their seats and interact with the them.

2. Time to declutter - remove unnecessary design elements

Translating highly complex business requirements into usable designs is another aspect to digital design. For example, making sure the ‘Buy it now’ button can be easily found is crucial for a product to work, if it isn’t then the solution could fail, and the retailer will not be around for long.

In terms of the User Interface (UI), there are many things to consider in order to achieve an optimal design; such as an information architecture to organise the sites’ content, or a pattern library to keep objects (e.g. buttons) consistent. Both aim to produce a usable UI for users and a scalable product for clients.

The tricky thing to get right is the balance correct between what the user needs and what the client wants them to see (including their brand). At times, finding this balance can lead to unnecessary UI elements being added.

Designers can also over indulge in clutter too - over using imagery, individual icons for every link or too many different styles and colours to contend with.

Avoiding unessential UI elements

Users have to navigate through everything presented to them; table grid lines, banner images, background colours, so it is essential to keep this at the forefront of your mind when designing. But, it is also helpful to step back and review your designs. Think, is this element actually needed or is it getting in the way?

If the answer is no, reduce it or get rid of it. All elements should have a purpose.

By reducing unnecessary design elements (visual noise) user’s have less decisions to make and their attention is drawn to the desired messages - like important ‘calls to action’ (e.g. the ‘Buy it now’ button).

Challenging your work as you go will help produce simplicity and usable products.

Simplicity mindset is not about dumbing down, it’s a way to deal with a complex landscape. As an expert it is your responsibility to make complexity accessible and create solutions that can be used. That means embracing simplicity, without losing any of the key insights or the design’s functionality.

3. Noise reduction - how we talk about our work matters

When we talk about or communicate our work through presentations, blogs or general conversations, we must be careful that we are relaying our thoughts as effectively as we can.

As we are close to the subject matter it is easy to slip into industry jargon or buzzwords. Be mindful that not everyone understands specialised language, and so may not be following what you are saying; creating unnecessary ambiguity.

Below, are two sentences that say same thing in different ways, both taken from Chris Anderson’s book  TED Talks: The official TED guide to public speaking:

“I want you to imagine a member of the species Loxodonta cyclotis, with proboscis pigmented Pantone o32U, conducting oscillatory motions…”


“I want you to imagine an elephant, with its trunk painted bright red, waving it to and fro…”

These examples highlight, in extremity, how things can be said in different ways - one very technical and one straightforward. The technical sentence is likely to be off-putting because of its complexity. As soon as your audience get lost they will zone out.

Are we talking the same language?

It is not just jargon and buzz-words that we need to be mindful of, but multiple meanings that words or phrases can have.

In Susan Weinschenk’s book 100 Things, she describes a ‘mental model’ as a ‘representation of something - the real world, a device, software, and so on - that a person has in mind’. She then goes on to mention that ’terminology can be confusing’, describing how the term ‘mental model’ is used in other ways by others - for example, a diagram showing the behaviour of an audience’s tasks, including their goals and motivations, this ‘structure’ being called a ‘mental model’.

Check that you haven’t slipped into using over-complicated language and that your message is unlikely to be confused. The best communicators use clear, unambiguous language.

Avoid complexity. Keep it simple.

A simplicity mindset is not about dumbing down, it is a way to deal with a complex landscape. As an expert it is your responsibility to make complexity accessible and create solutions that can be used. That means embracing simplicity, without losing any of the key insights or the design’s functionality.

One last example: the Mondaine Official Swiss Railways Clock. Swiss Railways, in the 1940s, needed a new design of their station clocks, for their trains to run on time and to give a stronger ‘brand’ identity.

One of their engineers, Hans Hilfiger, gave them a revolutionary clock design with strong black markings instead of numerals, and a new red second-hand with a momentary stop to give the guard an extra split second to signal the driver.

His design made the product highly visible from long distance, letting passengers know exactly how much time there is before the train leaves, and helped ensure a timely service.

This design is still in use today, after seventy years.

Using a simplicity mindset will help to make sure that what we produce is usable, and what we say is understood.