The Forgotten Design

By / Jun 17, 2011 / Tips

Think about the last time you were in an airport and had to find your way to baggage claim, or in a restaurant and wanted to locate the restroom, or in an office building and needed to find your way to the parking garage. How’d you get there? More than likely, a basic sign – be it a picture of a stick man or a glowing exit marker – led the way. But in addition to getting us all pointed to the right place, those dressed-down directionals pack a powerful lesson in communication: a simple design gets the message across quickly and clearly.

No matter what you’re trying to tell a customer, the best way to convey the information is by getting back to the basics, in everything from fonts and wording to thoughts and color. In short, simple sells. So whether your company is creating a website, designing business cards, or penning a blog, here are four things to keep in mind:

More isn’t always better.

Bombarding customers with a huge array of extras may seem like a good strategy for mass appeal, but that’s not necessarily the case. When offered options at every corner, customers become less likely to make a decision. “We’re all stressed-out on media, product, and ‘choice’ overload,” writes contributor Steve Tobak. “Too much choice can be a bad thing. Frankly, we’re all overloaded with media and product choices. Moreover, technology adds complexity that takes time to learn. It’s nice to have one less thing to analyze and worry about. ‘Simple’ is calming, relaxing … for a change.” In the midst of the current world of customer service chaos, the least complicated and most straightforward approach is often the most attractive.


Don’t make your customer grab a dictionary.

While your word choice should be smart, employing overly sophisticated language or industry-specific jargon could confuse, isolate, and frustrate clients. Eric Corl, founder and CEO of, suggests discussing products with people outside your company to gain a better understanding of the layman’s perspective, and then translating their feedback into simple product packaging that appeals to the common person. Corl also points to a quote from Meaningful Marketing author Doug Hall: “Whether it’s the lack of reading done by most adults after high school, the immense information overload people experience, or a little of both, consumers simply shut down when confronted with lengthy tomes. The solution? Read your marketing material to a child in late elementary or middle school. Do they understand your product? If not, what did you need to tell them before they did? Incorporate what you learn into your marketing and you will be astounded at the results.” The takeaway? Speak your customer’s language using easy-to-understand words and phrases.


It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.

Studies have shown that font selection can have a profound impact on a person’s actions, and it seems the simpler the typeface, the easier it is to convince someone to perform a task (like signing up or shelling out for whatever service or product you’re offering). In one test, University of Michigan researchers Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz presented two groups of participants with instructions for an activity; the first set was printed in a plain font (Arial) and the second in a script font (Brush). The results? Despite having read the exact same words, those given the directions in the cleaner typeface were more likely commit to completing the task. So while you may lean towards a flowery font, opting for something a bit more basic could help get customers to lean towards your company. (On his Neuromarketing blog, marketing consultant Roger Dooley also reminds us to “make the type size easy to read and use simple words and sentence structure” to increase success rate.)


Be easy on the eyes.

Whether it’s a web page, advertisement, product package, or business card, the most user-friendly design is often the one that’s the least fussy. Including carefully placed white space makes your content easy to absorb with a quick glance and makes your message more accessible to viewers. On the same token, crisp layouts, cohesive colors, and well thought-out design elements give off a sense of know-how and experience. While loading up on bells and whistles (such as a bevy of photographs or text, overwhelming flash animation, or too many navigation buttons) may seem like a great way to garner attention from clients, they’re likely to lose sight of the big picture. So edit your materials accordingly.


Still not convinced that simple works? Let me leave you with this final thought. The standard stop sign is one of the most effective communication tools around, and its success is rooted in four basic elements: an uncomplicated message conveyed through carefully chosen wording in a clear type on a bold and bright display. And doesn’t a stop sign cause you to stop and take notice?

About the Author

Bill Post, Small Business Research Analyst, has been providing research on issues of concern to small businesses for Business Card Design for three years. A former business owner prior to his involvement with 123Print Custom Business Cards, Bill spent several years after receiving his degree in the fast-paced corporate world before going out on his own to provide marketing and branding services to other small businesses in the Washington, DC metro area. In his work for 123Print Business Cards Online, Bill works to help small businesses get ahead and assist the little guy to prosper.

  • Cory James

    I would agree that “the least complicated and most straightforward approach is often the most attractive.”
    I think this statement also applies to interface design. Navigation need not be complex to prove your web dev skills is a good example of over complication in my opinion (even though AgencyNet obviously does some great work), while is, well simple which is most of it’s appeal in the midst of so much clutter.

  • Snoggle News

    Yes totally awesome. Designers today have often lost their way.. it’s good to see WDL publishing such useful articles.

  • Ian Harte

    Like Cory I agree – the least complicated and most straightforward approach is often the most attractive. This is exactly what I think about web design!

  • Toronto Web Design Company

    Couldn’t agree more to this article. ‘Efficiency’ is a major factor in choosing a good design. The design should be functional. If not, then more than likely the site will suffer.

  • Arthur Leonov

    When I started design I thought that simplicity is just a hype. Well I was young and stupid back then. I am still young but I believe I understand design in a different way now. It is all about core information and the best way to present it. Not a million other things that confuse people.

  • Peach

    Very interesting post. Simplicity is really what people usually forget. It’s not about what you can add, it’s more about what you can remove.

    Take Apple website for example, they remove all their products out of the first page and feature only one product at a time. That is something that takes gut to do. Removing unnecessary things out, making sacrifice.

    Thanks for such a great post.

  • Lex Koff – Templamatic

    Simple truths of web design =) Thanks!

  • Goncalo Espinha

    Nothing like a good inspiring time travel. Thanks!

  • Alice

    All too true! Look at the greatest moguls online today — Google and Bing for instance. All they have is that pretty little streamlined search box. On my website, I just try to make the focal point on my artwork and design instead of cluttering it up with a lot of text and useless graphics and other bits and pieces of information.