What the Fluff

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? 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.

Join the conversation

Fitz Haile on June 28, 2011

Very well put. The minimalist vibe has indeed made a comeback and I think you do a great job of explaining why it is (or should be) more than just a temporal fad.

Really like your writing style on this one, too. It’s cool to see it evolve from post to post. Great job!

Doy on June 28, 2011

Great article and great reminder for designers. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with effects and textures—I’m so guilty of this!—and with displays as vivid as they are now and printing processes as precise as they are now, the temptation is to let the filters fly!

I’ve been especially impressed by Coca-Cola’s rebranding over the last few years (did you see how quickly Pepsi followed suit?), cutting all the effects and getting to simple lines again.

I think designers have gotten tired of the “updated” UPS gradient shields; the “updated” AT&T gradient globe with barely discernable lines in the background, wrapping disproportionately around it; and the failed “updated” Gap gradients we’ve been exposed to in the design world.

The excuse is lack of time and turnaround, but I know, too, that sometimes…it’s just laziness.

And one thing you can definitely say about the modern aesthetic (and its rigorous reduction of “fluff”) is that it takes some serious work.

Thanks for the reminder!

Jim Wyse on June 28, 2011

As soon as you introduce a colored pixel into a site design, the discussion quickly detours from an information architecture discussion to design.  Many clients tend to design and make decisions emotionally.  I have often had the discussion about a prominent button that they just had to have, because they had it before, or just really liked it.

One of the best decision makers that takes both the clients and the designers pull out of the equation is to use your site metrics.

If that big button in the middle of the homepage, yields very low click throughs, you can explain to them that it should be replaced with something that will yield higher action and in return more revenue!

I have often made decisions/suggestions that the client wasn’t keen on with the proposal of lets try it, measure its results, and adjust accordingly.

In the end, the client is (usually) paying me(us) to help them build their busine$$, not just a website. We become “trusted partners” rather than just the web guy. Once they get on board with the idea of looking measured result$, their outlook changes.

In my previous life as a mechanical engineer, designing automation equipment, the best compliment I could get is, “That looks so simple “.

The KISS principle works everywhere!

Dom Christie on June 29, 2011

Yep - great article, and reminds me of this quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

Perfection [in design] is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.

I was discussing this with another designer, (after talking about this effect) and we came to the conclusion that while minimalism is good, subtle effects done well (like drop shadows and gradients) can really add to the user experience. Take Apple, for example. Many of us (myself included) enjoy using Apple’s glossy interfaces, largely because the effects they use add to the experience and provide sensible visual cues.

That said, as digital designers, I don’t think we should be constantly trying to emulate real life objects. It’s not particularly creative, and I feel it doesn’t really take full advantage of the medium (I’m looking at you, iCal for OSX Lion).

Bill Kenney on June 30, 2011

@FitzHaile Thank you sir!

@Doy we all need reminders and this post also served as a reminder to myself. I am guilty as well, sometimes we just need a quick smack back into place :) I did see how fast Pepsi followed suit, I almost used them as an image sample as well but was running short on time. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

@JimWyse this is so right:

In the end, the client is (usually) paying me(us) to help them build their busine$$, not just a website. We become “trusted partners” rather than just the web guy.

When a client understands that it creates a win for everyone: The client, designers/developers and the user.

@DomChristie that is a perfect quote! If only I had that in my post :) I completely agree with you that subtle effects can really add to the user experience. We just need to be conscious to not over do it, like iCal Lion haha


Steven Scarborough on July 5, 2011

I get a similar feeling that CSS3 styling will become the new Photoshop effect. The key—in my opinion—is in being subtle about your decision to use a digital effect. The affect of the brand might work in the short term, but if you want to create something timeless skip the trends and stick to a solid mark that works first in B&W.

To often we see remakes of remakes of remakes. Trends come and go, but good design has a lasting quality. Take Sal Bass for example.

Luke Connolly on July 8, 2011

Great post, Bill. I think CSS3 is definitely adding a lot of fluff because it’s all too easy to drop in the text-shadow or box-shadow. In my mind I see these visual effects as very powerful tools… as long as we keep in mind that classic axiom… “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Kartik on March 20, 2012

Hi Bill,

I am always a fan of your works, cause i love user experience rather then visual appearance, people sometime over use patterns, gradients and put so much things in that it distracts the main goal.

I myself is a believer in making clients need work, rather then go out a becoming a RAMBO of photoshop, people should use there brains on User Experiences.


Bill Kenney on March 20, 2012

@Kartik Thanks! Glad you recognize that as well and enjoy the execution on our site. We worked hard to make sure we captured some personality while not overwhelming the user with loads of unnecessary design elements.

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