#12: Why “simple” design isn’t easy, quick, or cheap

Simple Design is not...

The perception is that simple design is easy, quick, and cheap. These are all wrong. Co-host for the Seanwes podcast, Ben Toalson says, “You should charge triple for simple, at least.” Maybe this sounds like an exaggeration, but simple is probably the adjective I get the most when I get design requests from clients. It comes up most often informally when someone asks me, “How much would you charge me for (fill in the blank)? I just want something simple.” I’m sure every designer dreads hearing any variation of this question because it’s so hard for people to understand all the work we will have to do from request to completion to achieve something “simple”. But why isn’t a simple design easy, quick, or cheap?

Why simple isn’t easy
The dictionary defines simple as “Easy to understand, not elaborate, not ornate, not complicated”. All of these definitions are things that are not easy to achieve. It’s much harder to break things down to their essentials. If you were asked to give a set of instructions to a class of college students, it would be relatively easy because you can just tell them every detail and trust that they will be able to execute whatever you asked them. Now if you were asked to relay those same instructions to a class of 1st graders, you would have to work a bit harder to figure out what the most “simple” instructions would be. You would have to figure out what you could leave out and still get your point across.

This is what designers do, we work hard to discover what the best solution will be, and the most simple are the most difficult to achieve.

Now maybe the perception is the way it is because once something is MADE simple, it is much easier to understand and that makes simple synonymous with easy. And if we do our job right, our messages should be easy to understand. But there is a lot more work involved in getting from a mess of things (fonts, copy, images, etc.) to a clean, simple, and well-designed idea.

Why simple isn’t quick
Like I talked about in this week’s Design Tip Tuesday-deleting is an important step that is crucial to a design being simple; deleting takes time and it takes careful consideration. It is much more difficult to create a clean design than it is to create one where you put everything that you think you need. Much like cleaning up my two-year olds room takes a lot more steps when he has emptied out his toy box than it does for me to pick up the living room which usually only has a few things lying around-it’s the same concept.

After a client has filled out their design brief and we start to flesh out exactly what it is they want, there is a lot of information to weed through.

Taking all the things that the client has in mind and funneling them through my design process to the point of simplicity takes hours, days, and sometimes weeks.

All the deleting and changing again and again is a serious process. Working towards “simple” for me, also involves what a Creative Director of mine used to say a lot, “I wanna live with it”.  As in, I’m going to make something, leave it alone, and live with it awhile or, just let it sink in. Sometimes “living with it” is a few hours, and sometimes its a day or two. Whatever time that takes, it is crucial because it allows you to give your creative and critical mind a rest and when you come back you often have a sense of clarity that will allow you to continue to simplify your design. All these steps of researching, creating, deleting, leaving, living with it, and repeating the process until you come to the clearest solution, takes time.

Why Simple isn’t cheap
At the risk of sounding trite, I’ll just say, time is money, because it’s true. My time as a designer is valuable. Your time as a designer is valuable. And your time as a client is valuable. Time is spent on developing the details of the design; it is spent clarifying a concept, choosing images, finding fonts, selecting colors, and laying everything out. I’ve already explained why it isn’t quick, which is obviously directly related to the fact that because it takes time, it also takes money. But when design is done right, especially the simple designs, the value you will get from it will far outweigh the monetary cost.Simple, and great design should be an investment, not just an expense.

Bad design is easy. Bad design is quick and cheap. But good design takes time, and has value. Anything good is worth something. And good design is worth a lot.

Nothing quality is ever associated with being quick and cheap or easy. A 5-star meal, a well-made pair of shoes, an expensive car, or any Apple product; all of these things are associated with being quality. Quality is not ever associated with being easy, quick or cheap-and neither should a design. All of these things are often the best because of their beautiful simplicity.

The same should go for a “simple” logo or design-you should expect it to take longer, and be more of an investment-because it takes work, but it will be worth every penny, I promise. When I receive a design request for something simple, I try to define it better. Do they want clean or modern, or bright and airy? I try to figure out what they mean by that word. If they say “simple” with the intention of getting something quick and cheap, because they think it is easy-I try to educate them on the process to help them understand that “you get what you pay for”, and if you want something good you’re going to have to invest time, work, and money.

Designer Paul Rand once said, “To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse.” Simplicity is part of the process, but should not be the goal. The goal should be to solving the design problem in the most efficient and effective way. And that, is not always simple… Design is a wonderful world. I hope you’ll join me here. Because design matters.



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