As discussed last week, something designed minimally doesn't necessarily mean it is well-designed. As Apple design guru Jonathan Ive aptly notes, "simplicity is not the absence of clutter...simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product." Following along this train of thought, Core77 reader constellation23 recently brought up a brilliantly simple question with a variety of points to consider. Our reader asks,
"How do you know when something is overdesigned?"
As expected, our Core77 readers and moderators tackled the question with particular thoughtfulness and poise. Here are a few interesting points to consider in relation to this question:
Design means building up only to break it down
Core77 moderator and sketch master Michael DiTullo brings up both intriguing philosophies as well as helpful tactics for looking at a design in a sober way:
Have you ever heard the Mark Twain quote "sorry I wrote such a long letter, I didn't have time to write a short one?" I feel that design is often similar. A little bit of a different medium, but [...] I was reviewing a rough initial cut of a product launch video. A few people on my brand design team who are working on it felt (justly) very proud of it, but it was clocking in at 1:30 and I felt there was a lot of gratuitous repetition. So I directed the team to copy save and work up a second edit that was so radically short it made them uncomfortable. Then we could compare the two and see if short one was missing anything from the long one.
I think a similar thought exercise works in ID. Work a solution until you feel good about it. Go home for the night and try to return in the AM as if you are a different designer radically simplifying the concept. Is the new one missing anything when you are done?
Design is a continual act of building up and breaking down. If you only do the building up part you end with a monstrosity.
Don't try to solve everything at once
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Reader singletrack brings up an excellent sentiment regarding products on the market that try to solve a multitude of different design problems,
"I would also like to point out the section of the public that looks for over featured items. A good example is the Swiss Army Knife. This is a classic product but the reality of it is that it is not particular useful.
I spend a lot of time in the back country I do not choose to carry a swiss army knife because I find it not the best tool. Generally speaking I believe tools and other products should be use specific and have a clear and purposeful thought. With that said I have found that the Leatherman Wave can be very useful. It has solved a lot of the issues of the swiss army knife. Most of the tools are quite useful due to how much larger they can be on it. There is still parts I don't like and end up carrying extra tools to help fill the gaps of the Leatherman. So in part it helps but it also hurts because if you have to carry extra items to get the most out of you experience then it sort of defeats the purpose of the multi tool. I do think most "do all" products are weak just because you can't be everything to everyone. Much better to do one thing very well and build success from that.
Most "do all" products are weak just because you can't be everything to everyone. Much better to do one thing very well and build success from that.
Look to exemplar products for inspiration
Dutch product designer ralphzoontens also chimed in with some examples of well-edited design and how products always should be made in conversation with their overarching goal—
"It feels natural to add, or to reconfigure or substitute things that you already have, but to do that step of utter simplification, looking at what can be discarded, be it form or functional elements, or perhaps even an entire part of the product you before thought would be essential is something you have to consciously adapt yourself to.
Digital cameras are a great example of how simplification and reduction can lead to strong products. Where you can have separate buttons for everything you can also integrate them into smart controls, like Joep Frens has researched.
The intuitive Polaroid Snap Camera (source: Photojojo)
The Polaroid Snap is a good recent example of simplification through reduction - it has no screen and only color and auto-timer settings. I would have liked a few more settings -macro, color profiles- but it's a good example of utter simplification. The magnetic lens cover fits the snap concept. It has no lid to cover memory card and connector inputs. It has no battery lid. But it works for what it is - a casual camera you'll just have for a few years to capture precious moments - and you'll trust that the pictures come out great."
The conversation regarding what to add or subtract in a design can go on and on, so we want to know: what are your thoughts on how to make something truly essential or at least well suited for its ultimate purpose? What products or design writing do you look to for insight on simplifying your designs? Let us know in the comments or contribute your thoughts on the original discussion board post.