07 / 01 / 14

The art and science of visual subtraction


Here’s a simple notion to get us started. In the world today we are bombarded from all corners by visual stimuli: fast moving TV ads, posters, 3D films, video clips streamed into your smartphone... there is no rest amongst the maelstrom. Question - as designers how do we cut through the clutter, reach out and communicate effectively and create something timeless? The answer favoured by today’s designer is simplicity. Clutter-free design with fewer elements that looks fresh and communicates the message without competing with the decoration.

Sounds easy but it requires great skill and understanding of design principles to make it work. Whether in print or webdesign you need a concept that underpins the content. As designers we should aim to Kick away the crutch of ‘over design’ that often compensates for lack of a strong idea. Yes less is more, but simply subtracting is not enough; the fewer the elements the more emphasis is given to the elements that remain. Each one must be challenged in it’s role. Look to the end user, the viewer, the consumer and utilise only what is essential and present these elements with a clear hierarchy of importance. Determine how the piece will be viewed and lead the eye through the message.

This minimalist approach should never be dull however - the predictable outcome of a lazy solution - we still need to engage the audience and create something memorable to be effective, no one said it would be easy! Forge the idea, strip it to it’s essence and communicate it as simply as you can.

‘If you can’t explain it to a six year old - you don’t understand it yourself’

Albert Einstein

Here’s some pointers:

  • Know your audience
  • Have a strong concept, grab attention
  • Keep messages short and to the point
  • Omit unnecessary elements, especially those that interfere with readability and usability
  • Subtract these elements until it breaks. Push it!
  • Prioritise and emphasise the essential elements with a clear hierarchy
  • Harness your colour palette and use restrained colour as a tool
  • Don’t forget the potency of white space.

On a final note, don’t be tempted just to embrace the simplistic/minimalist approach just because it’s the current trend. Instead, understand and use the principles to underpin and strengthen your own personal design style. Be unique, be memorable.