"I just need something simple." I can't tell you how often I hear these words when people approach me about a project. Some of these people are using "simple" as code for "inexpensive". However, other people are using "simple" to describe the desired function and experience. Huge difference; and here's why that matters.
In short, I find that 1) people confuse simple actions with simple outcomes; and 2) that people take simplicity for granted because they may not understand the process that creates it.
What simple is NOT
There are people who use "simple" to minimize or downplay a project or request. They use "simple" to mean:
- Probably doesn't require a lot of skill to do
- And therefore.... you can't justify charging me a lot for it.
That's not always what simple means. I understand the inclination though — it makes sense that in comparing a simple outcome (like scrambled eggs) versus a more complex outcome (like quiche lorraine), the complex outcome requires more time, energy, and skill to accomplish. So I don't blame people for carrying that common-sense association over to design. But just because something simple is created, doesn't mean that the process to wind up there was itself simple. For example, creating a simple logo is not necessarily simple, because you have to distill big ideas or multiple representations down to its most basic essence and still have it communicate the desired idea. It is actually much easier to create a logo that is very literal and more complex looking — say, a logo that uses multiple generic icons lumped together into a single graphic. But, that rarely makes an effective logo.
What simplicity IS
Simplicity is deceptive, for that very reason. To get something simple, there may have to be a lot of effort put into it. To arrive at simplicity, you must whittle away everything that is nonessential. You must figure out only how much needs to exist to achieve the desired goal. That, my friends, is a process. And it can be a deep, delving, twisting, turning, searching, mistake-making, starting-over-multiple-times process. Simplicity is what's left when that process is complete.
Simplicity in marketing design
How exactly does this apply to day-to-day design or marketing? Well, let's look at a few common examples.
The first step is always to simplify the message. This can apply to everything from writing a headline for a landing page, to creating a theme for a marketing campaign, to determining what your direct mail postcard should say. It is amazing just how difficult this is for many organizations. Fundamentally, this usually is because they either want to say too much or have no idea what they want to say in the first place. It could be that they are trying to appeal to too wide of an audience or that the end goal is not clear. But if you want to end up with something simple, you must start with a clear, meaningful message.
What does it mean for a website to be simple? A "simple" site could mean a three page brochure site with no interactivity and minimal copy, but it could also mean a large complex database-driven site that looks and feels simple when the visitor is using it. Every website should aim for a simple, intuitive user experience.
Here's what you don't want: On a company's website, in the interest of trying to cater to every possible scenario that someone would ever want to be on their site for, they have four separate navigation areas to try and meet every need right from the home page. And of course they try to make each everything stand out so whatever a person is trying to find, they will see it. This is not simple. This would 1) result in a cluttered and confusing experience for their site visitors; and 2) drive people away from the call-to-action or conversion-generating activities that would actually make the website profitable. If, instead, the goals of the site are defined and prioritized, then the interface can be simplified and it can have a user-friendly design that "feels" simple, even if it is actually a very complex site under the hood.
Simplicity can manifest in print design by again, having a clear message, and making sure the design supports it. There is the temptation for someone who is spending money on a flyer, to want to "get their money's worth, dangit" and they equate that to using this opportunity to say everything they can possibly fit in a 4"x6" space.
More often, they would instead benefit from a more minimalist approach. A single compelling photograph coupled with a straightforward or clever headline and a clear call-to-action is usually as complex as it needs to get. There is no need to try to cram three paragraphs of fluff, every social media icon known to man, and multiple generic stock photos in an effort to represent "the diversity of our audience." Just keep it simple.
It seems the most difficult part about making something simple is letting go and trusting in the simplicity.
Why is simplicity important?
In your marketing, simplicity should always be a goal. It aids communication; it improves user experience. When you have a confusing message or cluttered website, you're making your audience's brains work harder than they need to. You're making it more difficult for them to concentrate on what it is you actually want them to do.
Never underestimate "simple". I'll leave you with this: "Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher." (What? No French for you? Here's the translation:) "Perfection is finally attained, not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away." -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry