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Default CategoryJun 10, 2014

Better Design Through Drastic Subtleness

Jeph Kryzak

Jeremy Clarkson, host of one of the planet’s most popular television shows, Top Gear (U.K.), has stated, in reference to the Porsche 911, that Porsche has some of the laziest designers in the world. I tend to agree with much of what he says, but on this issue I could not disagree more.

Porsche designers have perfected the art of something I have dubbed, “drastic subtleness.” Upon first glance, the latest batch of Porsche 911s may not look overtly different from the generation(s) they precede, but a second look reveals considerable details contributing to something extraordinarily fresh, new, and yet familiar.

What if web designers were more intentional about having a similar approach to websites?  That is, start off with a product that is special, but hone and sculpt it throughout its versions to always be fresh, new, and yet familiar.

Porsche 911 from the 1960s to present

When given the opportunity, we designers salivate over the opportunity to blow up an old design and make it whatever we think would look good. Sometimes that needs to be done. But sometimes that’s the easy way out. When you do that, you can lose what makes something original and great. You can lose heritage, tradition, or—in our industry’s vernacular—brand.

Going back to the automotive industry, let’s take a peek at the evolution of the Ford Mustang. From a visual design perspective, it showed much promise in 1964. Then something happened in the 70s and 80s—it mutated. The design blew up: it was barely recognizable as the beauty it started off, retaining very few cues that made the car. It wasn’t until circa 2005 that its style got back in sync with the original.

A Mustang unlike any other

Because of the vast variations in previous designs, the latest Mustang was considered retro. This is not inherently bad, but it may not be the desired result. Thus it distracts from what the design is all about or what it is trying to convey. Would it still be retro if the car had received the drastically subtle treatment throughout its existence?

Only with the foundation of a strong design can you get to drastically subtle. Be intentional with evolution. Don’t introduce mutations. Redesign doesn’t always require a jackhammer and a blowtorch. Utilize finer tools: tweak, clean, polish, align, blend, soften, sharpen, enlarge, reduce. Now review and repeat as needed.

It takes a lot of thought and constraint to effectively institute this discipline. It means sifting through the sea of fads, effects, and noise to see what works with what you’re visually trying to convey.  It’s a series of changes that appear to be small, but accept this challenge and see if the small tweak can lead to giant leaps.

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