Vanilla Design

Design goes beyond visuals, but do good design principles go beyond visuals too?

Thursday morning thoughts on design…

Since I’ve begun working as a designer, I find myself often less and less sure what my job actually is. I know a startling number of people who haven’t studied design a day in their life but who have a good eye and know the tools of the trade well enough to execute a promising result. I’m not a massive believer in innate talent, so it’s always tripped me up when a friend produces a great result out of seemingly thin air.

This got me started thinking about design at a more fundamental level again. After building things on a regular basis, it’s entirely too easy to get into the mindset that design is merely the craft of making pretty images, icons, or websites with the intent to get people to take some action. At some level, that’s entirely what design is, and I’m comfortable with that — businesses and otherwise need people to engage with the things they produce. That said, design goes beyond visual representation. That’s why we have techniques like design thinking trending in the business world as user-first approaches prove their value. I’m drawn to thinking about design in this way; as a sort of methodology that can permeate various disciplines.


In a recent blog post, Frank Chimero wrote:

I am for a design that’s like vanilla ice cream: simple and sweet, plain without being austere.

If you visit Chimero’s website or look at his portfolio in April 2017 you’ll instantly recognize this “vanilla” that he describes running throughout his work; everything important is where it should be and no more. This idea of “vanilla-ice-cream-design” hit me like a tonne of bricks for two reasons:

  1. Vanilla is without a doubt the best flavour for ice cream (fight me on that),
  2. I met with a mentor of mine from FRANK Architecture earlier this week, who echoed Chimero’s words in more detail.

Her concept of good design was focused on a careful restraint that demanded that each and every thing within a space have meaning and purpose. We spoke of the comparison of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright — perhaps the world’s most well known architects. Much of Le Corbusier’s work had an austerity and clinical aesthetic to it. While beautiful, buildings such as the Villa Savoye (below) have been said to be genuinely difficult to live in, despite the valuable role they’ve played in developing both design and architecture. I’d argue that the Villa Savoye isn’t quite vanilla — it’s packed with meaning and its design is extremely intentional, but having spent nearly 72 hours in a classroom studying the history of modern architecture, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of its depth. Something fitting this idea of “vanilla design” needs to communicate it’s meaning — or flavour — more effortlessly.

Villa Savoye

On the other hand, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Willits House, while equally complex in its design and history, demands significantly less from me than the Villa Savoye if I want to begin to understand and ultimately make meaning of it. Unlike the flat white surface of the Villa Savoye, the Willits House features decorative elements, if minimal. My mentor argued that these decorative elements are fine, and in fact valuable, as they help the mind make sense of the building and its purpose. Wright’s famous flat, overhanging roofs help ground his buildings. The oversized chimney operates as the heart of the home and is clearly visible from the exterior.

Willits House

These subtleties add up to a larger picture. It’s easy to understand that the Willits House is a family home. It’s harder to gather the same information from the Villa Savoye. This is why I like Frank Chimero’s idea of good design being like vanilla ice cream — there’s enough flavour and depth to draw out meaning, but it’s simple enough where it pairs nicely with other things — nobody eats apple pie with chocolate ice cream.


When I step back and think about good design, it’s less about the trends that dominate the industry every year (gradients and 3D renderings are big right now), and more about the principles that drive classic images, architecture, brands, and fonts. I make an effort to adhere to these simple principles, but with the over saturation of trendy visuals on designer communities like Dribbble or Behance, it’s difficult to avoid falling for the hype. When I work with clients, I try to minimize the trendiness that goes into any project unless I’m asked to or it’s a short lived project, such as an ad, where it doesn’t need to age with grace.


Originally posted on April 13, 2017 on my personal blog at jessemclean.ca. If you enjoyed this read, head over there for more.