As designers, we know we’re supposed to avoid unnecessary decoration, but what is decoration, actually?
A common mistake is to define decoration as any visual elements with flourish (fancy filigrees, skeuomorphic icons and diverse palettes come to mind). The error is that none of these elements are inherently decorative; the context of their use is the deciding factor.
Take for example the North Atlantic ships Paul Mijksenaar describes in his book, Visual Function:
“The size and number of funnels were deliberately chosen to create a powerful impression of grandeur. The interior was designed to please and above all reassure the passengers, and to divert their attention from less agreeable aspects like seasickness and the dangers inherent in any sea voyage.”
These ships were not the sparse minimalism colloquially associated with functional design, and yet, they were entirely focused on function. Every ornate pattern, fancy drape and swirly filigree was chosen for a very specific, very functional purpose.
The difference between decoration and functional visual elements, then, is not the nature of the element itself, but the designer’s intention and the element’s use in-context. This means no matter how ‘clean’ or ‘minimalist’ the design, if it doesn’t contribute to the problem’s solution, it’s decorative.
Where do these unnecessary visuals come from? Often, decorations are manifestations of designer insecurities: they’re the aftermath of our need to feel creative, to the detriment of the user. They’re introduced for Likes on Awwwards or Dribbble or some other triple-consonant, for the praise of our peers, for our designer egos.
As designers, we need to be honest with ourselves: are we basing our visual decisions on the user’s needs and problems, on personal taste, or on our own inner needs?
“Confusion about the notions of functionalism and beauty is nothing new, for emotion and social and cultural needs also play a role in determining function.” — Paul Mijksenaar