Simple design often results in beautiful design. An effective blending of character and elegance delivered with simplicity is an art many designers strive to master, but sterility is an unfortunate side effect of shooting for such an aesthetic.
What is Simplicity?
We could get philosophical and say that simplicity is undefinable, that subjective reality is the only realm art and expression exist within (and these claims are mostly correct), but I think we're better off at least attempting to define it in order to move on. So let's define simplicity in design as using the least number of elements to express the most amount of information. Essentially, design sans superfluity.
Think of James Dean in his jeans, white t-shirt, and leather jacket. He exuded simplicity while cleanly avoiding sterility and ended up as an icon, or symbol (dare I say: logo) of an era. When designing we need to James Dean-it—or JD-it—and put together a collection of simple elements that work together.
Sterility, the Danger of Simplicity
Designing with simplicity in mind isn't all cheesecake and sparkling wine—the danger of keeping it simple is that we may end up with a sterile design; in other words: a lifeless, uninteresting, completely passable piece of pusillanimous putridity. Or, to be less poetic: boring garbage.
How does this danger come about? It happens because the fewer elements there are the more each one has to be worth; if they're not speaking to each other then there's no way they'll speak to the viewer, which is the ultimate goal. If a design isn't well thought out then there's a high chance it will lack originality and character, which are undeniable features of attraction.
Number one: Think. Number two: Think more. Every now and then we need to sit back and take a look at what we've done. What draws our eye? What doesn't? Is there anything unique about our design? There's no right answer to avoiding sterility, or, more directly, there's no right way to create and deliver originality.
Come up with a set of questions that address ideas that are important to you or recurring issues you have and run through them frequently. It's good practice to write them down and force yourself to take the time to read and address each one. Eventually they'll become so ingrained in your thinking that you won't need to read them anymore.
Some questions that I ask myself regularly are, Would I look at this if I came across it? Does my imagery parallel the imagery that first comes to mind when I think of my subject matter? Does my design radiate the right amount of energy for the topic at hand? Am I using a new combination of techniques or have I done this before? And so forth.
Another way to prevent our work from being sterile is to get uncomfortable. Discomfort arises when we're not used to something, so if we're feeling it while designing then it's likely that we're heading down a path that we haven't traversed (cue Robert Frost quote), and while that may not mean universal originality it does mean personal originality, which is a step in the right direction.
There's only so much one can do alone, so if we're still unsure about our design after exhausting all ideas it's time to ask Regis of we can phone a friend. We can’t ask just anyone for their opinion or we'll really get confused. We need to seek outside critique from people we trust; more likely than not, the person should have some kind of design experience. After all, an architect doesn't ask a hairdresser for technical advice, nor does a glass blower ask a painter—we all have different experiences in life, so if we need advice on a subject then the people we ask should usually have knowledge on said subject.
Remember James Dean
Simple design can be extremely effective if done right, but sterile if done wrong. Remember to think, get uncomfortable, and ask a trusted friend if you need to. When it comes to simple elements of design, it doesn't take many to be unique, just a few done right.