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Working Within Limitations to Achieve Great Designs

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Read Time: 8 min

Like haiku poets, we can embrace limitations and in so doing create beautiful designs. We can choose to understand the limitations of the mediums we work within. We can also impose artificial limitations by placing structured restrictions on our work in order to create unified successful designs. Let's review some minimalist strategies for improving both: your design work and your bottom line.

Choosing a Limited Color Palette

There are some simple techniques you can use to improve your use of color. These techniques don't require a comprehensive understanding of color theory. Collis gives us a simple formula for limiting color selections in order to create a quick, professional Web site design. GoMediaZine has some additional advice in their Become a Master Designer series. In each case limiting color selection proves to unify the design.

Collis writes about selecting a limited color palette in the tutorial Designing a Family of Web Designs in Photoshop. Of course, that tutorial is available to Psdtuts+ Plus members. We'll give you a glimpse into the tutorial here though. The next excerpt is from the section, Color Palette. Below, Collis gives advice on choosing a limited color palette.

"One of my first decisions when designing a new site is to choose a color palette. There are some good sites out there to help you choose a nice set, but often I just come up with my own by experimenting. A simple formula that I sometimes use is to choose a set of neutral shades and a single highlight colour to lift the palette. In this instance I've chosen a beigy-grey color palette with a really bright light blue as my highlight color."


In the article, Becoming a Master Designer Rule Two: Limit Your Colors, Bill over at GoMediaZine has this to say about limiting color selection, "Reducing the number of colors we use in our design will make the piece feel consistent. Basically, everything will look like it goes together." The article also briefly touches on color theory topics such as value, hue, and temperature range.

Color SampleColor SampleColor Sample

Limit The Number of Fonts in Your Design

The more you use any element, the greater the difficulty in maintaining cohesion in your design. Fonts will clash quickly. Limiting your font selection will improve the professionalism of your designs. GoMediaZine gives us examples of how adding multiple fonts becomes problematic quickly. Subtraction is a good example of a website that has a pro feel, while using a minimal selection of fonts.

Within the same series mentioned above, GoMediazine has an article titled, Become a Master Designer—Rule One: Limit your fonts. Bill gives some clear examples of how cluttered and unprofessional a design can become with overuse of different fonts and different types of font faces. He has this to say, "The best way to accomplish a consistent look to your design is limiting the number of artistic motifs (themes) that you use. The fonts you select are the first variable you want to limit. I typically like to pick just two fonts per design." He then goes on to show good, bad, and even terrible usage examples.

Font UseFont UseFont Use

The website of Subtraction is also often used as an example of great minimalist Web design. In this case, let's look at the fonts used on this site. I looked at the stylesheet, and it's all done with one font, which is Arial for the entire site. If Arial isn't available, it does default to another font, and ultimately to sans-serif. Of course, there are different sizes, styles, and weights, but it's all variations on one font. This site is an example of how varied font usage can be, even when only using one face.


Limit Your Use of Illustrative Elements or Effects

Illustrative elements can quickly overpower a design. Designers need to bring illustrations into their designs without those illustrations overpowering surrounding elements. The more illustrations used, the more difficult it is to maintain this balance. I'm sure we can all relate to overdoing it with effects. Using too many Photoshop filters can quickly push a design from being elegant to appearing amateurish.

On the homepage of Slice N Dice we see there is one reasonably-sized Illustration. It gives the site some branding and character. It livens up the design without overpowering it. This is effective illustration. Notice how it's balanced as the third of three columns, each of equal weight. It's also anchored into the vertical space of that row.

Slice DiceSlice DiceSlice Dice

When using illustrative elements and effects in your designs, it's easy to go overboard. I'm just as guilty of this at times. The image on the left is from the tutorial I wrote titled, Create a Cool Halftone Effect. Maybe it should have been called, Create an Overload of Halftone Effects. Compare this to a more refined final image in the tutorial Creating a Rocking Silhouette in Photoshop. Notice how both designs have central figures with effects applied to them. Notice how the example on the right appears more subdued and elegant.


Embrace the Limitations of the Medium You're Working With

Every medium has inherent limitations. Whether it's on screen, a piece of paper, or a billboard, every design has physical boundaries we need to work within. Print will have different limitations than working on screen. For example, you need to be careful around the edge of some printed pieces. It's best not to place important information close to the edge. A misaligned cut could remove a precious piece of information. A safe area is designated when created pieces like business cards, newspapers, or magazines.

Online, we have to account for limitations such as font availability and lower resolution. Bandwidth limitations are still applicable and were especially limiting in the past. You still have to consider page load in your design decisions for the Web, but in the past this was more hindering. These are just some limitations. In each circumstance the best decision is to find solutions that work within these limitations. There were many sites that lost users as the site took to long to load. Flash sites took quite some time to adapt to this user tendency as well.

Rather than fight these limitations it's best to embrace them. Consider them as part of the design problem you're working to solve. You wouldn't approach a project for designing for mobile devices the same as other Web projects, as the screen sizes vary greatly. Each problems will have its own set of limitations. Work within them.

Limit Your Risk

Many techniques we've discussed in this article help to limit risk. It's easier to achieve successful designs that are built on a minimalist philosophy, than to achieve great designs that attempt to fuse disparate elements. It's quicker to choose a limited color palette than to work with multiple colors that may potentially clash. It's easier to work with just a few fonts, than to try to use a dozen. You're more likely to have a professional design if you use well-chosen and carefully placed effects or illustrative design elements. Certainly, adapting to the confines of your chosen medium is much easier than trying to create solutions that expand the medium's abilities.

Working within limitations achieves professional results quickly. Of course, that doesn't mean you should never create complicated designs or that you shouldn't include visual exploration within the design process. There are some projects that require more time spent creating a unique and complex design. And sure, It's fun to make these types of designs, though it's difficult to find clients who accept this exploration phase of a project. Often, designers dream of finding these kinds of clients. When you do, savor and enjoy the project.

While it's fun to create complex and playful designs, it's likely that you will be required to create minimalist professional designs in any design career you choose. As a freelancer, you may find yourself gravitate toward this kind of work because you can improve your bottom line quickly. The busier you get as a designer, the more risk you take on when bidding on projects. If you quickly create professional solutions, you're making more money. These are some of the financial incentives found in taking minimalist approaches in your design work.

Adapting to a Less-is-More Design Philosophy

You may have already embraced a less-is-more design philosophy, or you may struggle to apply the techniques discussed in this article. Consider that the more elements you add, the more difficult it becomes to achieve a balanced, harmonious, and effective design.

If these concepts are new to you, then consider testing out some of these theories in your upcoming design projects. Sometimes you have to walk through a problem in order to understand the solution. Try creating a design with an abundance of color, and then compare it to the same design with a limited color range applied. Try the same thing with fonts, illustrations, effects, or any other motifs in your designs. Keep in mind a minimalist design philosophy, which is the notion that elements can be stripped down to their essentials in order to achieve clarity.

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