Color, whitespace, & simplicity. How to design for broad appeal.

I’m not a designer. I don’t move pixels, animate transitions, or illustrate icons. I’m also not a developer. I don’t submit pull requests, build components, or write tests.

I’m a project manager. And while I don’t get my hands dirty with Wacoms or repositories, I care a lot about making great products that make the world a better and more beautiful place.

Federal Courthouse, SLC, UT

I went to school to study strategic communications. Specifically, I studied the art of rhetoric, which is (simply put) the study of the way human beings make arguments and create meaning through varying means; some explicit, some subtle. Rhetorical scholars are concerned about each and every way human beings communicate with each other, and how those arguments affect the world around us. For example, a government building that is constructed with architectural lines that are rigid and uninviting says something about what government officials are trying to say to the communities in which that building resides. Or, a spouse that folds his/her arms in an argument communicates a non-verbal position of retreat or closed-ness. The point is, human beings are constantly communicating and arguing meaning through a variety of venues And while we might not give these venues explicit attention, these choices can have profound effects on how human beings interact with the world around them.

Rhetorical scholars are concerned about each and every way human beings communicate with each other, and how those arguments affect the world around us.

In the world of product development, this means that a rhetorical scholar cares about each design decision, no matter how subtle that decision may be. This is because each choice means something about what the designer is saying to the user or, conversely, about how a user interprets a choice a designer has made. The use of color, typeface, or hierarchy of information presented (to name a few examples) all say something about what the designer wanted another person to feel or understand.

In this post, I argue that the use of white space, color, and simplicity, can rhetorically appeal to the largest potential user base if done so correctly. Essentially, approaching design using a liberal application of whitespace, a broad color palette, and simple UI allows designers to “ruffle the least amount of feathers” with users. Products that employ these techniques have the potential to appeal to a broad base of users.

White Space

I agree with many rhetorical scholars in arguing that even the space around us is rhetorical. This means that it not only matters what you put on your psd, it’s what you don’t put there that matters. This is blatantly apparent in “white space” as a conscious design choice.

White space, as a specific design approach, gained traction in the 1950’s and 60’s as a result of the minimalist movement, the rise of post WWII corporate art, and the public acceptance of the “clean look of upscale living” (Pracejus, Olsen, O’Guinn 2006).

According to Pracejus, Olsen, and Scott, white space has the uncanny ability to create four rhetorical responses in the majority of the people that view it. Over 60% of the respondents reported that white space signaled “prestige, confidence, trust, and cutting edge character elements” when used in design (Pracejus et al). Thus, we can identify confidence and trust as rhetorical responses of users to the implementation of white space. This feeling of trust and confidence aide white space in its ability to appeal to a wide audience across many cultures.

White space signaled “prestige, confidence, trust, and cutting edge character elements” when used in design.

Color

According to Richards and David, color as an element of web page design “has the power to enhance a message decoratively, and the decorative is rhetorical” (Richards and David 2005). Basically, this means that color choices aren’t just a part of great visual design, but that color can illicit a response from users in a way that informs how they perceive the products we make. It’s not just the copy and pictures used on a web page have argumentative power, but the colors we choose have subtle effects on the people that use our products. I know this sounds really obvious, but in reality, I haven’t seen a lot of designers take this into consideration when making key decisions in the colors the chose to leverage on a project.

Color Science, Adobe, 2015

On the simplest level, specific colors invoke certain “temperatures and emotion” with users (Richards and David 2005). Red may symbolize aggression, or that something is wrong. Blue may show calmness and unity. While many of these colors elicit specific responses from a variety of viewers (red is bad, green is good, etc), their rhetorical reaction is largely dependent on the emotional and psychological state of the partaking party. The danger in using color broadly, like many other forms of rhetoric, is that its response from an audience is hard to predict. Choosing a color is like choosing what album to play at a party where a diverse group of people are attending; some folks may love Led Zeppelin, but others (and stay away from these people), think that Robert Plant’s voice just ain’t that appealing. Taste is hard to predict because it can be so subjective based on a persons culture or upbringing.

The danger in using color broadly, like many other forms of rhetoric, is that its response from an audience is hard to predict.

A designer can avoid this problem by carefully combining colors to balance their possible responses. Richards and David state that “the effect of color depends on context. Which colors occur along with (a particular color), how large an area (that color) occupies; all affect how the viewer will see and interpret it” (Richards et al 2005). Thus, by carefully selecting a variety of colors to use in a particular design, a designer can have much better control over its intended effect making it appeal to a variety of audiences.

Simplicity

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German historian and archaeologist who is hailed as the father of art history, argued that simplicity is the most difficult way to produce beauty. “Producing a true masterpiece requires creating something significant but still simple in its design” (Winckelmann 1759).

Amangiri, Minimalist Architecture, Southern UT
“Producing a true masterpiece requires creating something significant but still simple in its design”

While Winckelmann lived hundreds of years ago, his ideas still ring true for our time. The appeal of simplicity is so powerful in fact, that consumers are much more likely to trust and feel comfortable about products with simplistic designs (Karvonen 2000). Furthermore, Karvonen argues that when the UI is simple and aesthetically pleasing, people are much more likely to feel comfortable using a product and continue using it in the future . Therefore, individuals perceive that simple designs are easier to use and trust, and thus have a broad range of accessibility.

The world’s most popular products.

I’d like to point out one poignant, real-world example that employs good use of whitespace, color, and simplicity to appeal to a broad user-base.

Google’s homepage is one example that expertly employs these three traits. First, white space constitutes the vast majority of the page. There are no pictures, background images, or other significant visual elements present on the page. White space frames color. That’s it. The Google logo is the focal point on the page, and its colors contain all three primaries, red, yellow, and blue with the inclusion of one green letter. The colors are basic and matte. Lastly, the web page is very simplistic in its design. The page serves one purpose, to enter a search query. There is only one text field- the search bar. The language used on the page is emotionally sterile and easy to read. Across the top of the page the user can easily access a variety of small links to other Google products and services. One of our lead UI designers, Adam Tolman, said it best: “There are few pages as simple as Google’s. There certainly weren’t any as simple before it came around, and I would argue that there are few that have achieved (Google’s) level of simplicity since.”

How it all comes together

Each of Google’s chosen three major rhetorical strategies presented through its web pages draw out varying effects from the viewer, but there is one organizing principle present in each of them: innocuousness.

White space, color, and simplicity, when used in tandem, rhetorically create a feeling of trust and comfort in their audience. White space has almost no negative response and has shown to encourage feelings of integrity. The colors used are decoratively appealing and avoid creating any one negative emotional response. Simplistic design effectively reinforces these first two aspects by giving a user the feeling that this product is easy to use and trust. Google has gone to great lengths to deploy these strategies in a way that will be appealing to a world-wide audience.

Conclusion

I’m not a designer. I’m not a developer, but I care about building great things. While is doesn’t make sense to apply the above principles to literally everything we work on, it is important to think critically about how every design decision effects the users we design for. At Underbelly, we are very concerned with how we even talk about building products. Each decision we make as product builders matters. And while we all need to move fast, ship stuff, and pay the bills, we really believe it’s the subtle choices that really matter.

References

Pracejus, J. W., Olsen, G., & O’Guinn, T. C. (2006). How Nothing Became

Something: White Space, Rhetoric, History, and Meaning. Journal of

Consumer Research, 33(1), 82–90.

Richards, A. R., & David, C. (2005). Decorative Color as a Rhetorical

Enhancement on the World Wide Web. Technical Communication Quarterly,

14(1), 31–48.

Zach Zhizhong, Z., & Zhu, K. (2010). The Effects of Information

Transparency on Suppliers, Manufacturers, and Consumers in Online

Markets. Marketing Science, 29(6), 1125–1137.

Zach Zhizhong, Z., & Zhu, K. (2010). The Effects of Information Transparency on Suppliers, Manufacturers, and Consumers in Online Markets. Marketing Science, 29(6), 1125–1137.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Trans. Michael Sadleir. New York: Wittenborn,1947.

Karvonen, Kristina (2000). The Beauty of Simplicity. In CUU ’00: Proceedings on the 2000 conference on Universal Usability (2000), pp. 85–90.

Winckelmann, J.J (1972). Erinnerung über die Betrachtung der Werke der Kunst. In Weissen, Ch.F. (ed.): Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und der freien Künste, Leipzig.

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