What the Fluff

By Bill Kenney

At what point did design take a turn from the clear and effective treatments that we saw in the modernist movement and turn into a mass-production of technology-reliant solutions full of gradients, bevels and unlimited fluff?

What The Fluff 1

Attention to detail has become attention to 35 different layer effects, and such reliance on software tricks is not good for our industry. As designers, it is our duty to create unique and effective visual solutions for our clients. To accomplish this we must constantly remind ourselves of the key framework within which we create, and carefully add new skills and thought processes upon that foundation.

Recently, I have seen signs that design is getting back to this more effective and pure form. As the minimal design aesthetic becomes more and more popular again, it is important to realize that it’s more than just a personal preference. Striving for simplicity and clarity should be an essential mindset for creating successful designs. In design, now more than ever, less truly is more. As designers we hear this term daily, but we don’t always incorporate it in our work. With the expansion of digital platforms and countless touch points to share our work, consumers are absorbing and digesting design more then ever.

“In design, now more than ever, less truly is more.”

With our society’s design saturation, it seems as though the audience is responding less and less to the “bells and whistles” type of design. Weekly stories of major corporations undergoing major re-branding initiatives seems to bear this out. Many corporations have bought in to the premise of simplification and are positioning themselves with an instant and memorable logo and/or message.These companies are transitioning from their older, more complicated marks to reduced, cleaner solutions. They understand the value in a design that is clear in its intent, target and message. Most importantly, they have realized this can be accomplished without every trick in a designer’s arsenal. An effective design cannot and will not be everything to everyone. An effective design simply needs the power to capture the viewer for a split second and deliver the message.

I have adopted this minimalist mentality in my work. For me simplicity has evolved beyond personal style, and is now a pillar in my design philosophy. As creatives, we always feel the need to explore every idea - and we should, it is essential to the process. The danger is when we we try to combine the best parts of many ideas in a single design, and we end up jamming multiple techniques together. I have been guilty of this myself many times, and the results are rarely effective. During the creative process we need to be conscious not to incorporate all of our ideas and or skills into one solution and keep in line with a single application that stays within the goals of the project. Jacob Cass said it best in his recent article “Be Creative, But Please Don’t Overdo It”.

“What should have been a blank piece of letterhead someone would be able to type a letter on looked more like a TV screen of a news network broadcast with a stock ticker along the bottom, a news ticker at the top, a weather map on the side, and a bullet-point graphic seemingly growing out of the news anchor’s head.

“The approach of throwing everything up and seeing what sticks is great if you’re talking about a brainstorming session and a whiteboard. It’s not a great approach if you’re talking about a thousand printed sheets of 28-lb linen paper.”

This simplistic and minimal mind set is even more important when discussing a new logo treatment and how that logo will transition throughout the extensions of the brand. Fluff has no place in the branding world. Branding is meant to be unique, versatile, memorable and often, timeless. All things that are nearly impossible to achieve with a cluttered solution.

The true power of a successful design only starts to show when you pull away the unnecessary treatments and expose the hidden solution that lies beneath. Like the proverbial “Man Behind the Curtain,” it’s when you remove the fluff that you will start to reveal the beauty of the final solution that lies behind it all. It is only when we can become comfortable with breaking down our own designs and parting ways with our personal interjections that the design will begin to shine.

As previously stated, this idea is evident in the recent rebranding of many large corporations. Starbucks, for example, was able to reduce their branding down to the single mermaid head image. They realized this iconic image was all they needed to represent the power of the Starbucks brand. They even chose to lose the name in some executions, as ultimately, it was just wasted ink.

Image of Starbucks' cups as they redesigned their logo over time

Always remember the goal

Having said all this about personal and industry-wide styles, it is also very important to remember who you are designing for. In most cases (hopefully), your designs are for clients who have very specific goals for those designs. We need to be very careful not to inject our personal taste into a project at the expense of their goals. Granted, there is a fine line here, because your design style is likely a large reason why you were hired for the project in the first place. So, I’m not suggesting you eliminate that or even mute it. What I’m suggesting is Photoshop effects are not a style - they are a tool. Use your instincts, skills and talent to make a design that will work for your client.

David Bushell wrote a great article called “Design for Clients” covering this idea. In it he says:

“Designers should take pride in the purpose & effectiveness of their design, not the skill in which they can apply Photoshop effects.”

With the growth of social design sites like Dribbble, Forrst and LoveDsgn we can see the trends that start to overtake us. We need to focus on reducing the clutter along with keeping in mind what is best suited for a particular project / client.

We need to be conscious to stop and ask ourselves:

  • Why are we choosing to add that outer glow and is it necessary?
  • Is the slight texture in the background adding anything to the overall design or is it actually taking away from what could be a better reduced solution?
  • Does the styling I chose to add serve a purpose, or am I just adding fluff?

Sometimes it is nice to get perspective from someone who is not a designer. I often lean on my business partner @ErikReagan, who is a developer, for what I call “pruning advice” (a process of reduction). As a developer, he processes things in a completely different way than I do. He can easily address the over-designed elements in my work because his mind is geared for function and purpose, as opposed to the aesthetic approach I bring. He has no issue calling me out for graphic applications that are unnecessary in early stages of my designs, and that input proves invaluable as the design moves forward.

In the end clarity is key. Always keep in mind that your client has goals they want to accomplish, and your design needs to help them achieve those goals. Also remember that less is almost always more when communicating visually, so don’t be afraid to prune your work.

What are your thoughts?

Please let me know what your thoughts are on this topic. It is always nice to get insight from other designers on personal feelings and or work processes in regards to our industry.