Why Simple Design Solutions Are Hard

I love simple design solutions but, most of the time, they're very difficult to achieve.

I came across a great example of a simple solution recently. It was part of a DNA testing kit that came in the mail. The test requires a 125 mg hair sample and the kit includes a paper scale to ensure a sample at that exact weight was taken. The scale is a piece of card stock die-cut into an elongated hexagon. The directions, printed on the scale, require you to fold the long sides on a pre-scored line to create a see-saw and place it on a level surface. The paper see-saw has a large X printed at one end on which you place the hair sample, strand by strand, until that end of the scale tips and touches the table. 

an elegantly simple paper scale

I'm sure the designer of this paper scale went though an long process to create a simple and elegant solution. To appreciate the process, though, you have to reverse engineer the scale to see the problems the designer had to solve:

  • create a device that measures exactly 125 mg of hair
  • make it inexpensive to manufacture
  • make it portable so it can be mailed in an envelope
  • include easy-to-follow directions that can’t be misplaced or lost

My Process of Simplification

I see examples of over-engineered and over-thought design solutions all the time. That's why it's so satisfying to discover (or create) an elegantly simple one. Often in my own design process I will arrive at a point where I believe I’ve solved the problem. Then I take it a step further by stripping away elements to see if my solution still works. I’ll continue to reduce it until it's on the verge of falling apart.

One of the web projects I worked on this past year involved rebranding the client's identity. The client, CMSC, is an educational organization that serves the coordinated metrology community, including manufacturers and users of high-end, 3D measuring equipment. Their branding incorporated some of the visual elements of measurement science but it was a bit dated and cluttered with decoration.

I started with the heart of their branding, the logo. The first order of business was to remove the reflections, drop shadows and other decorations that were not really carrying the message of the organization and made it impossible to reproduce the logo in a single color when material limitations required it.

The original CMSC logo (upper left) went through several iterations of simplification before I arrived at the final version (bottom right). And it was only after stripping the logo down to its most basic elements that I felt it was a successful solution.  

The original CMSC logo (upper left) went through several iterations of simplification before I arrived at the final version (bottom right). And it was only after stripping the logo down to its most basic elements that I felt it was a successful solution.
 

Part of the rebrand was to create a new, expanded color palette to replace the blue and gold, and my first thought was to incorporate it into the logo itself. But the multi-colored versions seem to obscure the message of the branding as much as the original had so I settled on using a single color: CMSC’s signature blue.

I thought I had arrived at a good solution and began tweaking the rule lines in order to find a good balance between the form (the blue area) and counter form (the white space). I was reviewing it with a friend of mine when he asked, “What if you got rid of the background box altogether?” This was the necessary extra step to further simplify the logo while still preserving its essence.

Instead of applying CMSC's new colors to the logo itself, the palette became part of a versatile identity system, with the logo as the core element.  

Instead of applying CMSC's new colors to the logo itself, the palette became part of a versatile identity system, with the logo as the core element.
 

The most basic (and necessary) elements of the CMSC logo are the letters that make up the acronym and the rule lines that represent the science of measurement. This simplification also made the logo very versatile; it could stand alone over a either a light or dark background, and be easily incorporated in a larger branding system.

Designing something to be simple can be a difficult journey but it’s easy to see the benefits of it when you arrive at the right solution. If you’d like help simplifying your complex design problems, let's talk.