Realism in design can be equated with visual noise. The more realistic an image, the more detail and noise it has to contain to reach that state. And although that is often necessary, visuals with more detail are more difficult for the viewer to decode, as our cognitive operations work more efficiently when the visuals they are computing are reduced to elemental details. Visual noise makes design more realistic (the real world is overloaded with ‘detail’), which is often necessary, but that same noise can get in the way of a core brand message.


In brand design, the more unnecessary noise there is, the harder it is to read the core brand (product/service/ad) message. Want to get a message across clearly, to help the audience focus on the essential? Then pare back the noise, reduce the realism, until you have a design with nothing between the message and the consumer.


As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, people are excellent at filling in the blanks on images, so designers have a great deal of leeway when it comes to using reduced realism in their work. The audience is, to a point, easily able to fill in missing information based on context, familiarity and prior knowledge.


Techniques like minimising elements and/or colour, abstracting images and using line drawings or silhouettes help to reduce realism, and in doing so often make comprehension quicker and easier.


However, use of reduced realism is not without danger for designers and brands, a danger that has recently been highlighted by flat design. Flat design has been one of the dominant design trends in the last decade or so and is a trend which is highly expressive of reduced realism. The idea behind it (as is the case with reduced realism in general), is that the removal of unnecessary distractions and noise made it easier for chosen messages to be expressed, and precisely defined content to take centre stage. The problem, and the reason why we are now in a period of ‘flat design 2.0’, is that over reduction of realism can make it impossible for the audience to figure out what they are looking at and what they are meant to do as a result.


In the words of user experience researchers the Nielsen Norman Group:


“Interfaces with completely flat visual design do not use any realistic or three-dimensional visual effects…


The motivation behind minimalist and flat design was a desire to get the ugly distractions out of the interface, so that the focus is on the content and user tasks. It’s ironic, then, that the misuse of these design styles slows users down by forcing them to think harder about what options are available to them.


By making it difficult for the user to know what to do, flat design had become clearly counterproductive to the original aims of reducing realism in the first place.


If we accept that reduced realism is an effective tool for key message delivery, yet want to ensure the design still functions, the question becomes: how far should we reduce the realism of a design?


John Maeda’s seminal manual, The Laws of Simplicity, can help us here. In Law One: Reduce, he states that ‘the simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.’ In other words, we cannot just strip elements out of a design without thought, rather at every step of reduction we need to consider the functionality of the design.


By Oliver Brown