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I’m Jacob Cass, the founder of JUST™ Creative. I’m a multi-disciplinary graphic designer, working with clients all around the world. My specialty is logo & brand identity design. JUST™ Get in touch.

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Be Creative, But Please Don’t Overdo It

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This is a guest article contributed by Bill Post*.


The other day a design came across my desk for coordinated letterhead, business cards, post cards, and pens. It was colorful, creative, and stimulating. Or maybe I should say over-stimulating. My eyes didn’t really know where to focus. Four different fonts were used in different areas, six different colors, and there were graphics and text all over the place. What should have been a blank piece of letterhead someone would be able to type a letter on looked more like a TV screen of a news network broadcast with a stock ticker along the bottom, a news ticker at the top, a weather map on the side, and a bullet-point graphic seemingly growing out of the news anchor’s head. It was simply too much. And, anyway, how was I ever supposed to get all that on a pen?

It got me thinking – why is that a bunch of good ideas aren’t as good as one good idea? And how can a designer feel free to expand his or her creativity while narrowing the focus?

The approach of throwing everything up and seeing what sticks is great if you’re talking about a brainstorming session and a whiteboard. It’s not a great approach if you’re talking about a thousand printed sheets of 28-lb linen paper. So instead of thinking in terms of limiting your freewheeling ideas, think of letting your ideas fly, but only in an early stage of the process. In other words, as many crazy ideas as you can come up with the better. But don’t print there. Take it a few steps farther.

Murder

Stephen King in his book On Writing famously quoted Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch as writing, “Murder your darlings.” It’s harsh and it’s not easy. But as much as you love every one of your amazing ideas up there on the whiteboard – your “darlings” – you must get rid of them and mercilessly go with the best idea for your client and the brand whether it’s the most mind-blowing of your ideas or not. I once had a professor who did his first round of grading papers by picking out one decent sentence out of the whole paper then telling us to ditch the rest and start over from just that one sentence.

But there is an alternative to coldblooded murder – just put the darlings on ice. Keep a notebook or file with the great ideas that didn’t make the cut and save them for another day, another project. No mourning the darlings and no creating a crowded unwieldy design just because you can’t bear to part with them. It works out for everyone.

Sometimes the problem isn’t an over-abundance of creative ideas, but a dearth. We’ve all had days when the creative spark just ain’t there. Too many times, though, I’ve seen busy over-wrought designs that seem as if in lieu of any good ideas, the designer threw a multitude of ideas together and swirled them around like a child smearing food around the plate so it looks as if they ate something. Resist the temptation to throw in everything and the kitchen sink just to distract yourself and the client from the fact that you haven’t come up with a winning idea yet. Then get back to the whiteboard.

Wheres Wally

Even if you do have several smart ideas, too many of them in one place is not only crowded, it also taxes the viewer’s mind and memory. A logo or design must be memorable. A design that looks like a page out of Where’s Waldo is not easy to reproduce in one’s memory. No one will be able to identify that certain something that truly captures the essence of your brand if it is hidden or if they have to think hard and look closely to find it. A design should capture the brand with an almost singular image, color scheme, or pattern that viewers will come to recognize and associate with your client’s business.

It’s counter-intuitive, but simple designs send a more nuanced complicated message than a design with multiple elements. Instead of distracting the mind, it captures the mind and gives the viewer’s imagination some room to think as well. If you’re struggling to come up with a simpler design a good way to start over is to do some more research on other brands within your client’s industry. Being in touch with the flavor of the industry will help you develop a specific approach from the beginning rather than an all-things-to-all-people approach. Certainly you want your design to be original, but it is also helpful to get a feel for the kind of designs and complexity level that your particular audience is used to and drawn to.

If the name of the brand you are working on is especially creative, engaging, snappy, or memorable, let it do the bulk of the work and find a simple but unexpected way to incorporate a design around it or a design that highlights the name rather than distracting from it.

Coming up with ideas is the fun part of design. But the satisfaction comes when you’ve carved a fine sleek sculpture out of your original mound of ideas. This refining process is worth the work. A lack of focus in design can translate to a more general lack of focus, and no client or designer wants to be associated with a lack of focus. If a business or a designer can’t even keep their stationery looking organized and focused, it sends the message to potential customers that the business or designer is not focused in their other work either. A sophisticated and efficient design, on the other hand, sends the message that complex thinking and efficient work are part of the brand. And that’s one good idea.

Your thoughts?

*Bill Post has been providing research on issues of concern to small businesses for 123Print for three years. Before working there, Bill was a small business owner himself, providing marketing and branding services to other small businesses in the Washington, DC metro area. Photos by Shutterstock.

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21 JUST™ Creative Comments

  • Christian Elden Reply

    Some great points here… I think some clients have a hard time seeing the benefit of leaving one (or more) of their ideas out in favor of trying to include everything, but when it comes to identity, a well-executed simple idea can go a long way.

  • Troy Jensen Reply

    Thanks for the great article. Very well written, and some excellent points.

  • Rebecca Do Reply

    I absolutely agree! My graphic design professor, said, “You have to learn to let go of that thing you love.” It’s not about using the ideas/elements that you think are great, it’s about researching your audience and designing something that will send your client’s message to them.

  • Bill Kenney Reply

    Great post Jacob,

    This thought process is essential to a good final product. I enjoyed the read and have been planning on writing a post for our site along the same lines. Detailing the idea of how designers can have the tendency to use ” To many tricks” in a single design. Throwing every effect and using every tool they have mastered at a new design which leeds to a giant unfocused, ineffective mess.

  • Jason Vana Reply

    “It’s counter-intuitive, but simple designs send a more nuanced complicated message than a design with multiple elements. Instead of distracting the mind, it captures the mind and gives the viewer’s imagination some room to think as well.”

    I would definitely agree with this line of thinking when it comes to logo design. The most memorable logos for me are the ones that are simple enough to remember, but creative enough to make an impact.

  • Bill Berger Reply

    Great article and so true on many levels!

  • Alex Reply

    Agree completely. I think simple and relatable is something to strive for. In my experience, it’s important to create a lot, but I think that narrowing down your work is equally as important.

  • michael Cousins Reply

    I know I have to work on killing more of my darlings – or at least put them on ice.

    “It’s counter-intuitive, but simple designs send a more nuanced complicated message than a design with multiple elements. Instead of distracting the mind, it captures the mind and gives the viewer’s imagination some room to think as well.”

    I second that Jason V.

  • Nathan Sarlow Reply

    I think you’ve just illustrated (very well in fact) the difference between art and design. Art is self-gratifying, but design is the consideration and implementation of a desired user interaction.

    Thanks for the post Bill. It’s always great to be reminded of these things from time to time.

  • fipe Reply

    It’s like they say, too much of everything is bad.

    I guess we all have to remember to reign in the urge to go all crazy and put forth idea after idea onto the same canvas (so to speak).

  • Jon Garcia Reply

    Great post! I see this more and more in a design list posts I catch. Whether it be a list of über-creative portfolio sites or résumés, they just come off too busy, unreadable and/or overwhelming. I personally find this to be anti-creative, almost like dadaism of graphic design – abstract, sometimes beautiful but never usable.

    Nathan Sarlow in the comments above said it best that it’s a difference between self-gratifying art and engaging promotable design.

  • David Christian-Woodruff Reply

    I couldn’t agree more with this entire post. Over-designing is something which can ruin days of work from a designer. All too often, people think that the more you cram into a space, the better it is and the more you put across the message you were originally trying to convey. This view can occasionally work, but rarely. More often than not, less is very much more.

    Working as a web designer and dealing with customers on a daily basis, I feel that this is something that they don’t particularly understand. You can design a stunning website that promotes their services or products to the highest level, and yet they will still come back and want to add more to every corner of the page. It’s frustrating and means we have to take large steps back with the design, however it’s something that we have to deal with as the customer is ‘always right’.

    In this case, becoming a ‘sales person’ may be necessary to convince the client that the simpler and more sleek design is what they actually want and is what is needed, if only to ensure that you don’t have to continue with a project in a half-hearted fashion.

  • Norm Reply

    Great points. I tend to over-design. After my first comp, I leave it alone for a while, and then come back, and get rid of everything that isn’t necessary to the design.

  • Asim Craft Reply

    Excellent points. I want to redesign my site so this post is very insightful. Check out digitaldesignzmeda.com and let me know what you think.

  • cazare mamaia Reply

    Why not unleash your creativity? I think design of any type has no limits, maybe just your imagination.

  • ali Reply

    Catch the Idea, Focus, and Do it!

  • atractii Reply

    Excellent points. I want to redesign my site so this post is very insightful. Check out digitaldesignzmeda.com and let me know what you think.

  • Mailin Reply

    Creativity is the main characteristic for the designers. If they are not creative, how can they create something great? How can they make awesome designs that we all love?

  • drwindle Reply

    Agree completely. I think simple and relatable is something to strive for. In my experience, it’s important to create a lot, but I think that narrowing down your work is equally as important.

  • Ata Ur Rehman Reply

    Very creative post, The same thing i discussed with my fellow designer & he even don’t consider my comment about his design. But now i can sent your link to him to read :D Thanks Jacob

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