Last night I was watching Michael Caine on Letterman. He was talking about how to be a good actor and explained that the viewer needs to be thinking: “I wonder what's going to happen next to Harry Brown,” not “Michael Caine is such a good actor in this movie, isn’t he…!? His character is so complex.” If he’s noticed for his good acting during the film, Caine considers his performance a failure.

Like actors, when designers have done their job well, we tend not to notice. The best design isn’t actually there. We take it for granted—it seems elementary, as if it couldn’t be anything else. As the saying goes: Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.

Where’s the design? All I see is a chair

Everything is designed — interfaces and experiences I encounter everyday, from my coffee cup to my computer, the desk it sits on, to the chair I sit on. I know this because I rarely pay them any mind at all—except, of course, on the rare occasions when something doesn’t work how I’d like.

It’s unfortunate that failures in a design tend to be more consciously noticed than successes. That’s because when something’s succeeding, good designers don’t want you to notice the thought that’s gone into making it. Like Michael Caine’s performance, you should be immersed in the experience, not its delivery. Whether it’s to communicate a message or facilitate an action, design should never get in the way of itself.

“When things are going well in a design, we don’t pay attention to them. We only pay attention to things that bother us. It’s like an air conditioner in a conference room. Nobody ever interrupts our meetings to tell us how comfortable the temperature is. They don’t even notice.”
Jared Spool

It takes a touch of humility from Michael Caine to realize his purpose is better served when he keeps himself out his performance. Likewise, when we design without trying to give our skills the limelight, we risk them going unnoticed, but perhaps we do our jobs better.

So how do you make sure your designs don’t get in the way of themselves?

Work from the inside out

Textures, treatments, colors, and typefaces get most of the attention in graphic design. Of course they’re important, but they’re irrelevant if the underlying concept, content, and structure isn’t well conceived. This is the design. The rest is just execution. Worry about the cake before the icing (do you even need a cake?). Try to always work from the purpose and let it inform the rest.

Avoid decoration.

Design is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It’s a path to a destination. Adding flowers by the roadside won’t make this path more direct.

Anything that’s not vital to your purpose probably shouldn’t be there. That’s not to say your design should be bland and bare-bones. Where you draw the line on what you keep in a design depends on your style, the job, and the audience. My suggestion: Be ruthless.

Know when to stop

Embellishments and fluff often creep in when we overthink and overwork. Don’t hide behind these. Be clear on the thing(s) you’re trying to do. Audit the design against these objectives. If it ticks all the boxes, stop adding and start taking things away.