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Less is more is one of the most used phrases in design. However, it is mostly used as a quote than as a principle we could actually follow. Let’s change that. Let’s make this quote more helpful and actionable so we all can benefit from it. In this article, we will discuss three specific areas of design where we can use less is more as a principle to achieve more.
Just a rule of thumb, not a dogma
There is one thing we should make absolutely clear is that less is not always more. In some situations, if we provide people with something in smaller quantity, it can end up doing a damage to the design and user experience. So, before we begin, let’s make sure that we will not take this less is more approach as some kind of a universally applicable principle, or dogma.
Instead, we need to always ask ourselves one simple question before we start reducing and removing. Is this the right situation for this principle? Only if our answer is clear, or at least almost clear, “Yes”. We should move forward and start applying this principle. Otherwise, we should consider other options that are available and try one of those first.
A short story many designers know
How many times did you think that you just can’t get some part of the design right? Maybe you were almost done. The rest of the layout looked just amazing. However, there was still this one thing that one thing that just didn’t look right. The problem was that you had no idea about how to solve this problem. Nothing you tried so far didn’t work. Sometimes, it made it even worse.
I found myself in this situation a number of times, in almost every project I have been working on. Well, it was more likely in every project. This is not a joke. In every project so far, there was always that one small thing that one tiny detail that kept me up at night. To make it even worse, most of “solutions” failed. Either the design was worse or the user experience.
The paradox of this situation is that adding something usually doesn’t solve the problem. This was usually the first thing I tried. In short, it didn’t work. What did the trick was doing the exact opposite. To my surprise, and delight, the key to solve that puzzle was either removing or reducing something. There are probably other designers as well, who were in similar situation. Maybe the same. And, that is why are we here today.
Below, we will discuss a number of tips on how to use the less is more principle and solve problems with our design. Don’t worry. These tips are not complicated or hard to apply, quite the opposite. They follow the simplicity of the less is more. So, when you learn about them, you will be amazed how simple they are.
When less can be really more
Less is often really more, especially in design. The question is, when. Let’s discuss a number of situations or areas when removing and reducing can improve the design and user experience.
How many typefaces should you use in your project? There are two potential answers to answer this question. The first answer is the usual “well, it depends”. It doesn’t matter how vague and unhelpful this answer can be. And, yes it indeed is. But it is true. The “right” number of typefaces we should use in a single project depends on a number of conditions and it is, therefore, hard to answer this question without giving any additional information.
The second answer is, that, yes, less is more. Let’s say that you decided to use two, three or even more typefaces in your project. So far, you are relatively satisfied with the result of your work. However, there is still that weird feeling deep inside you that something just doesn’t work. The problem is that you don’t know what it is. There is a relatively high chance that the thing you don’t see and that doesn’t work is typography.
It is a common advice in design to use two typefaces, three in only very rare and special cases. Yet, many designers with less experience sometimes decide to go against this advice. Instead of embracing the less is more principle, they do the opposite. The idea is to make the design and user experience richer and more diverse by using a higher number of typefaces.
In most cases, this is a big mistake. We need to remember that every typeface conveys specific visual properties. Mood for example. This also why some typefaces work better in some situations while in other don’t work at all. Typefaces are not universally usable. And, this is also why pairing typefaces is one of the hardest aspects and tasks we can think about in web, graphic, print design, and just any design that makes use of typefaces.
Fortunately, the fix for that weird inner feeling, as well as the difficulty of creating a perfect pair is easy. Change your approach. Embrace the less is more principle. Don’t try to add another typeface. This will probably make it worse. Instead, reduce the number of typefaces you already have. You don’t have to use three or even more typefaces. Actually, you don’t have to use even two. You can create great design and user experience with just one typeface.
Create richer typography with weights and sizes
When we want to make our typography palette richer, our first choice is often adding a typeface. What we forget is that we already have a variety of options. Every typeface, okay, almost every, contains multiple weights. Why use another typeface? Think less is more. We can make improve our design just by using different weights. This way, not only that our design will preserve the same mood, we may also solve our problem with something not working.
What if the typeface we chose has only one weight? Unlikely, but it can happen. Can we replace that typeface with one that has more than one weight and fits the design well? Let’s say we can’t, for whatever reason. Then, another way to fix our problem with typography the less is more way is by using wider range of font sizes. Lastly, we can improve typography by using different shades and tints of colors. This can work just as well as using weights.
Don’t be afraid of using only one typeface. I saw many designers use one typeface and focused on using different weights, font sizes and colors. The result was simply amazing. Take a look at some designs posted on Dribbble or Behance. You will see that many of the best examples use only one typeface. In a fact, it is the professional designer who uses the least amount of typefaces and follows less is more principle the most often.
The second potential fix to solve that inner feeling that something doesn’t work is revisiting color palette. The less is more approach works in a similar way for color palette as for typography. It is often not a good idea to try to add more colors. Quite often, this will not improve the design, or user experience. Richer color palette can quickly start to backfire. More colors can overwhelm people and make interaction with the design harder.
Additional colors can also start to have negative impact on the overall mood of the design. Sure, there is a place for playful layouts full of colors. However, not every project is the right fit. We have to always consider the conditions under which we are working, such as the industry of our client type of her business. Finally, adding more colors can divert people’s attention from the main goal, message and purpose of the design, and our client.
Base, accent and pop or even less
The solution is to do more with less. Reduce your color palette. Using three different hues is usually enough for the vast majority of design projects. Base, accent and pop, that is all you need. Base is the color you will use the most often. For example, for backgrounds and elements that should not stand out. Accent is a color you will use less often than base, for highlighting elements, and parts of the layout, people should notice.
Finally, pop is a color you will use only in special cases, when you really want to catch people’s attention. This color is strong and immediately stands out, like a red on traffic lights. Aside to these three colors, you can also use black (just not pure) and white. All we need. In a fact, we can do a lot with reducing our color palette to only one color. Less is more and better.
This type of palette is called monotone color palette. We can create this type of color palette by taking a single base color and adding its shades, tints and tones. That article about monotone color palette clearly shows that even one color can be enough to create very good designs. So, give it a shot. See if monotone color palette is the solution you are looking for.
Another way in which focusing on more can backfire is when we overdo it with specific elements, such as CTAs. You know, calls to action, usually buttons. This is just my opinion. However, I think that it is often better to use smaller amount of CTAs in the same layout, and limit the amount of CTA types. The reason behind this is that every layout should have one goal or purpose.
What I mean is that every page or screen of the design should lead people to take one specific action. For example, main goal for a landing page could be to motivate people to sign up or subscribe for something. Or, it could be registering and creating an account so they can start using the product or service. Or, it could be downloading something, app, software, whatever.
If we have one goal, we should focus on that goal. Offering additional choice can divert people’s attention and prevent them from taking the action we want them to take. Imagine your main goal is to motivate potential customers to buy some tea. Will you also offer coffee or water? Or, will you also try to convince your customers to subscribe to your tea newsletter or magazine?
Sure, you can offer people the option to subscribe to your tea newsletter or magazine, but only after they make the purchase. Until then, it is not your main goal to get new subscribers. Your main goal is to sell some tea. Let’s focus on that. Also, people might be more motivated to subscribe after they buy the tea. They may want to know about what they have just bought.
The problem with choice
Any additional choice can lower the probability that people will choose the thing we want them to choose. We should think about any and every additional type of CTA is a choice. The problem is that the more choices people have, the harder it is to decide and they need more time. It is easier to choose from two options than from three. And it is easier to “choose” from only one.
What about “learn more”, “take a tour”, “subscribe” and other secondary choices? Sure, we can add these “secondary” choices. However, we should not add them by using the same or similar shape and form we used for primary “call to action”. Well, unless the main goal, and primary action, we want people to take is really reading something or subscribing or whatever.
We should focus on that one main goal, or primary action. The way to act on this is by strategically distributing the right type of CTA throughout the layout in the right amount. Too many CTAs can be overwhelming for people. What’s worse, too many CTAs will make the design look like a metaphor for used car salesman. Then, people will feel like we are trying to force them to buy.
Too few CTAs?
What about using too few CTAs? I think that the only situation when we can use too few CTAs is when we don’t use any at all. Other than that, I don’t think there is such a thing as having too few CTAs. What’s more, I think that worry about the wrong thing. What we should worry about instead is about providing people with enough information so they can make decision and use that CTA.
This is something we often forget. The CTA itself never sell the product or service. It doesn’t motivate people to download the app or to subscribe a newsletter or magazine. It says nothing about why people should do some of these actions. There is only one thing that CTA does. It helps people take the action. In other words, CTA is only the last step in the whole process.
In this sense, it doesn’t matter if we have one CTA or ten. If people don’t want to take the action, no amount of CTAs will change their mind. More CTAs will do nothing. Or, it will discourage them even more because they will feel, righteously, that we are trying to force them to buy. If people really want to buy, subscribe, register, try, etc. they will find the time to look for a CTA.
Based on what we discussed above, is there any such a thing as having too few CTAs? No, except having no CTA at all. Is there such as thing as having too many CTAs? Yes and it is very easy to overdo it. So, it is a risk worth taking to follow the less is more principle and rather reduce the amount of CTAs than increase it.
Closing thoughts on less is more
Today, we discussed three simple ways in which we can embrace less is more. Following any of them can help us solve that inner feeling when something is just not working, but we don’t know what it is. These ways focused on working typefaces, colors and CTAs because we work with this triad probably the most often. As a result, we can create better designs and user experience with less.
One last thing before I let you go. In some cases, removing or reducing can be counterproductive. In some situation, it can make the design worse and damage user experience. It was for this reason I decided to include the section “Just a rule of thumb, not a dogma”. However, this is not enough to cover the whole area of where less is more can start to backfire.
So, keep in touch and expect an article on this topic soon. It will be basically about the opposite of what we discussed today, when more is more. My hope is that with these two articles any designer will be able to create better designs and user experience with less headaches. Until then, thank you for your time and have a great day!
Do you have any questions, recommendations, thoughts, advice or tip you would like to share with other readers of this blog, and me? Great! Please share it in a comment. Or, if you want to keep things more "private", feel free to contact me on twitter or send me a mail. I would love to hear from you.
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