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 | August 02, 2016

Back to Basics: The Importance of Applying Restraint in Design

posted by , Mark Bolek

Less is More

My friends and coworkers think I am a minimalist in terms of how I live and how I design, which is true to some extent—but I haven’t always been this way. There was a time when I used Photoshop to create space scenes with wormholes and photorealistic vector illustrations with all types of gaudy gradients. It was terrible. There was a short time I even thought that every space on a page needed to be filled with something, anything.

Why not fill things with more rather than less, right? We are all susceptible to such thinking. We all want more bang for our buck—but is this good thinking in the long run?

The Importance of Restraint in Design

Recently I was reminded of the principle of restraint in design by our friends at Atomic Object. Their brand follows the design principles coined by legendary German designer Dieter Rams, who applied restraint in a design for Braun. Mr. Rams always applied the principle “less, but better" to his product design. Take the example below: The 1959 Braun TP1 is both a radio and a gramophone housed in in the same beautiful casing. It not only acted as a radio but could also play 7-inch wide ‘singles’ at 45 rpm. It was truly one of the first walkmans. Here in America, companies like Zenith pushed the same old radio design.


Left: Zenith Royal 755 clunky leather portable radio (1959). Right: TP 1 radio/phono combination by Dieter Rams for Braun (1959). A beautiful futuristic design that could easily be seen in today’s line of electronics. 

Design Restraint in the U.S.

During the same era, the use of restraint was also being championed by some designers here in the U.S. as well. In 1959, graphic designer Paul Rand upheld this in logo design. When talking about his design for the Westinghouse logo, Rand said, “A logo cannot survive unless it is designed with the utmost simplicity and restraint. His original logo is still used today, showing how well the simple, restrained design has upheld for decades. Rand also said “…[design] ideas do not need to be esoteric to be original or exciting.” 


The Westinghouse logo, Paul Rand (1959)

Coming to Terms with Design Restraint

It can be very difficult to bring a designer around to this way of thinking when we live in a world which demands “more, more, more!” of everything. But when you step back and compare a loud and complicated design (such as a logo) versus a minimalist design, it's easy to see how much more effective a cleaner, restrained design can communicate a message to your target audience. It's like the beautiful quiet rising above the din.

As a designer, it feels good to go back to the basic principles. I'm thankful for this reminder and look forward to challenging myself to incorporate more of these principles in my design.

Interested in Learning More About Basic Design Principles?

There is much to be learned from the pioneers of graphic design, like Dieter Rams, Paul Rand, and much more. Click here if you're interested in Dieter Ram's design principles. Paul Rand also has plenty of thoughts and advice on design that are well-worth the read. Click here to read more about his perspective.