“I think we should put logos or instructions on all those blank surfaces of the product.” Full stop.
How do you know when to finish adding features to a product? Minimalism in product design is very hard to achieve in large or small companies. How does one know where to draw the line between a blank slate and the visual clutter of feature creep? I ask you to consider the tuxedo.
The Visual Interest Pareto Principle
The majority of a tuxedo’s fabric is a consistent dark texture that highlights the wearer’s shoulders in silhouette of a Dorito chip. The high contrast areas of black and white with shirt, label, and bow tie create visual attention to draw the eye to the gentleman’s face. A tuxedo (or suit, for that matter) succeeds as an iconic choice of attire for formal wear because of its opulent minimalism. 80% of the fabric draws attention away from itself and towards the 20% of organized details of strong visual interest. We’ve all seen the mock tuxedos that ignore good design sense and use a busy print on the jacket fabric, giving the appearance of a NASCAR driver uniform. While this approach does have the rare potential to be quite avant-garde, leave that to the Alexander McQueen and John Galliano types of the world. A wise artist friend once told me: "You have to learn the rules and become an expert at working within them before you should attempt to break them."
Why Refinement Matters
Visual layout is just as crucial as content. No matter what you decide to create in this world, it should tell a story. Whether the story is about the item itself, about you as the creator, something more nebulous, or a mix and match combo of these, if you start with a clear story goal in mind it is easier to decide how the tale should be told. In examining the tuxedo, almost all of the lines are vertical to give a taller, more slender look to the wearer. This is someone who wants to look their best.
The underlying shirt gets to peek out just a little bit at the wrists, because often when someone is gesturing we want to be able to easily follow their hands with our eyes. More importantly though, the shirt and tie get to be seen up the middle of the torso in a crescendo of visual intrigue until abruptly ending at the neck. Why stop there? The design should lead the viewer's eye to the face! The suit or tux itself should not be the focal point necessarily, but a tool by which to draw attention to the person wearing it. The story is "this person is at their best and deserves to be seen at their best."
If we have completely unusual visual cues, our eyes could be led in the wrong direction. An ill fit sends a message of sloppiness and neglect. If the print is too bold or unusual for the model's taste, it draws attention to the garment itself instead of the wearer. The refinement is lost and replaced by spectacle. This can cause embarrassment and anxiety. We've all been witness to a bad suit. Even if you can't explain why right away, you know it the moment you see it.
“In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Making Simplicity Work For You
To bring it back to the project you are working on right now, when staring down negative space, first ask yourself: Am I filling up emptiness just to fill up emptiness? If the answer is yes, leave it alone. Walk away. Another important factor to consider though, is what if your eye is being caught by the negative space in a bad way? What then? Add more features, images, text? Still no. But don't walk away this time. Maybe all that needs to be done is an adjustment to the space already filled. Or maybe the features you've added are misaligned in some way. Are they missing the mark? If you can rework your current aesthetic while keeping the positive to negative space ratio exactly the same, it is worth attempting before getting caught up in adding even more. Plan carefully, tinker around, find that perfect balance.