A wise college professor of mine once bestowed the humbling realization that, “design that looks clean and simple actually requires the most work.” It is a concept that is not understood by many because it seems counterintuitive. Though, when you think about it, the same applies to all disciplines – sports, science, music, business. People like Einstein and the Google team delivered eloquently simple propositions that have touched the lives of billions.

Why is it that a simple design can take the most time? There are a few important points to consider when looking for an answer to this question. For example, the first solution that you arrive at is never the best one. And even the best design can’t mask a weak underlying message. It is important to take the time to pinpoint the exact purpose of the message, determine how to translate that visually, establish hierarchies and eliminate anything that is unnecessary.

One of my favorite case studies for this concept is that of the London Underground route map. In existence since the early 1900s, the Underground map took a revolutionary turn in 1931. Previously designed to achieve geographical accuracy, Henry Beck took a radical step when he presented the underground network as a circuit diagram, inspired by electrical wiring diagrams. As an electrical draftsman, Beck’s idea obviously was not created based on an innate understanding of graphic design but a desire for accessibility. The thought behind the “diagrammatic” tube map was to show the routes and stations according to clarity, rather than geographical accuracy. His lines only ran vertically, horizontally or on 45-degree angles, which instantly added organization to what had been referred to as “a bowl of spaghetti.”

Since geographical accuracy and distances were no longer a factor, Beck disproportionately increased the size of central London where the highest density of stations occurred, allowing this area to be more legible for commuters. He also stripped surface landmarks from the map – a sensical decision, as this was a subterranean system devoid of landmarks. The one remaining surface feature was a representation of the river, which served as enough of a reference for people to orient themselves to the map. The effectiveness of this design has been proven – a similar concept is still used not only in London but also for transit systems around the world.

Was geographical accuracy what was most important or was it going detract from the overall message?

We ask similar questions of our clients when trying to determine exactly what is the key message of a demonstrative. Is the purpose of your timeline to show proportionally accurate increments of time or simply the order of events? Is it to emphasize the sheer number of events during a specific time period? Is a detailed breakdown of financial data necessary or are the totals all that really matter?

Effective design is a case of less is more. If you can weed out what is non-essential, your design is stronger and more concentrated. This is where incremental design is crucial. With every iteration produced, more focus and clarity is added. We have worked with attorneys who have found that going through this exercise has helped even them achieve some clarity with their case. The first step is simply being aware of and appreciating how lengthy the process can be. But there is no question that the more time you put into it, the more understandable, polished and effective your graphics will be.

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