Design by deletion

Whether you are writing or designing, clarity is the most important thing to pursue. A clear message cuts through the noise. A clear design makes a job easy to do. The hardest thing is boiling down what you’re making into its essence. You have to go through the messy business of adding and iterating before you can see what to take away. Every word and element is optional until proven essential.

Deleting is designing. Deleting doesn’t take away, it adds implication; a potent tool for creative work. What we decide to exclude is just as important as what we choose to include. Not using implication lands us in the trap of trying to over-explain everything. You may already know this one: design is like a joke, if you have to explain it, it’s terrible. We need to treat our users as intelligent people. They are capable of filling the gaps you intentionally leave them. You know that feeling you get when you’ve worked out the plot of a film before the main character? That’s design by implication at work.

There’s a scene in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. Beth Harmon’s adoptive mother presents her a gold watch and simply says: “it’s a Bulova”. I had never heard of this brand before, but those three words implied to me that it’s an exceptional, expensive watch. The scriptwriters didn’t need to say “This is an exceptional, expensive watch.’ It was implied through what wasn’t said.

The same use of implication can be found in something as banal as form design. When you fill out a form on the web, the width of the form fields implies the length of input it expects. A postcode field is only eight or so digits in width. This subtle use of implication makes scanning a form easier, which helps you complete it faster. So it’s not that you have to always delete things, but reduce them to their essential form. I try to work with “Can I take this away or make it simpler? And what happens if I do?” repeating in my head, whatever it is I’m creating.