DESIGN. LESS IS MORE. / by Gavin Lau

When it comes to design, have you ever been given a document that literally appears to be shouting at you? Text is emboldened, CAPITALISED, italicised and just for good measure underlined. Not just a few pieces of text, but masses of it. It’s difficult to read, you just don’t know where to look, if you can bear to look at all.

This is a worst case scenario, but I think you will know what I’m talking about – there are mountains of documents out there that meet this criteria. Usually, the creator wants to overemphasis certain points, but of course overworking the material has the opposite effect, people just won’t even want to start reading.


Why design matters

As a graphic designer, I’m given documents to ‘clean up’, ‘make look nice’ or ‘do your magic’ to. These begin life in a similar form to the worst case scenario described above. In essence the first thing I do is give them a good clean down. I resolve the hierarchy of information so the structure and flow is there, and once this is in place all the overworked elements within the material (from a designer’s eye) are no longer necessary.

Contrary to populist banter, design isn’t just about making something look good, it’s about understanding its function, ensuring it sits well within its destination space and most importantly that it communicates effectively to the intended audience. The intention of the piece of work is fulfilled by keeping all these considerations in mind at each stage of a job’s evolution.

You can’t learn to be a designer overnight, this is a complicated industry and there are many nuances that a trained eye just won’t see, however there are some simple checks and measures you can put in place that will finesse your material and give it a more professional polish.


Start with typography

So let’s start at the beginning and agree that overworking type is counterproductive. Here are some key steps:

Step one: don’t proliferate copy with bolds, capitalisations, and underlines.

Step two: keep it clean. Remove all formatting elements and make some simple decisions on a headline, subhead and body copy font and size.

Step three: introduce pull out areas sparingly. For instance, introduce a lead in paragraph to sections in a font size slightly larger than the body copy and put the really essential information in this section.


Get punctuation right

My next recommendation is also a simple one – punctuate with a light touch. Some of the old classics can be helpful, but not everywhere, as designers (and non-designers) we can generally achieve the same end without overplaying the material. Here are some quick examples of where material can be simplified:

  • Full stops after a title
    Dr. Smith – there is no longer a need for a full stop after a title, we all know Dr is short for doctor, or Mr is short for mister. Use of full stops in this context now looks decidedly old fashioned and unless you are specifically trying to portray material from a bygone era this is one to avoid.
  • Commas after each line of a stacked address
    Trust the line breaks, commas have no place here, keep it simple.
  • Exclamation marks after a title!
    Please don’t, it doesn’t make it more fun and exciting. Just write a good headline and let it to do its work.
  • Dot dot dot after a headline
    We know more is coming, we don’t need this spelling out, plus this has the added drawback of weakening your headline. As above, just write a good headline and let it do its work.
  • Colons after each heading or subheading
    People will understand that text following a headline will most probably be related to the headline above it. So there is generally no need to spell it out. I’m not saying never do this, just think twice before you liberally scatter colons (or semi-colons) across your document.
  • Brackets around the important bits
    Brackets are like the bit extra you can skip if time is short – so if and when you use brackets (sparingly please), do ensure you are bracketing the right bits.
  • Double spaces in text
    I know we were taught to do this in typing at school (or I was, I think this is aging me a bit), but the software provides adequate space now, and it is no longer necessary.
  • And or &
    Okay, this can be debatable for headlines – and in this context consistency is the key. Within body copy use the word ‘and’ rather than the ampersand. The ampersand symbol is fine for headlines, but it’s a shortcut too far for body copy.
  • Or or /
    Using the forward slash rather than the word ‘or’ in body copy, is a real bug bear for me. I find it really breaks the flow of text and looks slightly lazy, whereas ‘or’ is friendlier and reads better in copy.

Of course it can also be really effective to break the rules, but be aware of it. A Wired headline recently deployed the use of over punctuation for greater effect. Flash. Must. Die.


Next, consider layout carefully

Most designers will tell you stories of clients who see white space as a waste of real estate, they see a gap on a page and want to fill it up. In the industry we talk about ‘breathing space’, a designer will have this in mind as they put together a layout. By allowing for some breathing space within a design there is a feeling of lightness, in contrast a lack of space can be really overwhelming.

Think of the doom type feeling you get when you receive a very busy document, or an overcrowded webpage. What’s your first instinct? To read it? Click away, or put it on the dusty to-do pile, for another time.


Then think of a piece of literature you receive then has a lightness to it, it feels more approachable, you feel happy to take a minute to look at it and get the gist of what it’s about. This applies to digital as much as to printed material – the front page of a website, an email newsletter or a remarketing ad.

Honing material and removing the unnecessary is really key to a hardworking and successful design. We also talk about ‘clean design’. Apple are fantastic at this – they clean down and remove all the unnecessary bits. This can also be about working with an underlying structure, lining items up so the eye travels well over the page and doesn’t get distracted by misalignment or elements that jar within a layout.

There are also some default practices I find people falling into that can be improved with a bit of basic design understanding.

  • Centred content
    Please don’t go into ‘safe mode’ and centre all content. Here’s a classic in-house leaflet cover example: centred logo (probably massive), centred title, with more centred copy underneath. Even the most bog standard, professionally produced, service industry signage will go beyond this. So get behind left justified text, or off centre visuals and the beauty of asymmetry. It’s not revolutionary, just make sure copy is readable and the design is balanced overall. If something is too ‘comfortable’ (not to a designers eyes I hasten to add) then it’s boring, one of the jobs of the designer is to capture people’s attention, to engage them – and safe mode won’t get you there.
  • Big logos
    As in the example above. Your logo is important, you do need to ensure you follow a consistent brand, but you don’t need to scream about it. Think sophistication over volume. Take a look at some professionally produced material by a brand you really value and see how they use their logo. This is a request many designers hear, Agency Fusion have made a really funny video on the subject, Make my Logo Bigger.
  • Overuse of bullet points
    I know this is a controversial one, but I admit, I have an issue with bullet points – or rather the overuse of bullet points. I can see it now, a six page document, each page covered in bulleted material. I’m not saying don’t use bullet points. They can be really effective, but use a few, when appropriate, then they still have power to communicate short effective pieces of information quickly.
  • Tabs, indents and page breaks
    Another classic, have a look at your internally produced office documents. I bet you find a few that fall into this category: there’s a line, the next line is indented. More points below this, they’re indented. By the time you get to the end of the page, only the right hand third of the page has copy on it. It’s a real waste of paper. A bit of added structure to your page, using scannable heads or subheads, and this just isn’t necessary.
  • Page breaks between each topic
    If you use type effectively – weighted for emphasis, by hierarchy – then your headlines with stand out and sections will be divisible. You won’t need to waste paper printing a twelve page document that could be half the size. Just use page breaks when you need to control the flow of text for readability.
  • Tables
    Adding a bit of white space, using a simple design, equalising spaces and minimising colour can work wonders with a table. This gifographic by Darkhorse Analytics clearly illustrates the point.


Making the change

It’s not too big a task to undertake the suggestions above, and I promise the adjustments will pay dividends. A bit of attention to detail will see serious improvements and an upturn in the time people are willing to spend learning about you and your business through the communication material you produce, even down to the emails you craft.

There is no substitute for a professional designer and the knowledge they can offer, so when it really counts this is the way to go.