Essentialism in Design: How to Bridge the Innovation Gap

Instead of more, what if we actually need less?

There is a discrepancy between the promise of technology and the reality of everyday experiences. This presents designers with a challenge: Doing less, better. 

Every day we read about the potential of technology. You'll always read, in one form or another, that "technology is impacting our lives and our businesses." And it's true—technology does offer a lot of possibilities. But it also creates a lot of friction. While we're building self-driving cars, our in-car navigation system is still a drama. While we're putting people on Mars, commercial aviation is still a terrible experience. And while Google Duplex is making appointments on our behalf, we're still helpless when we try to start a conference call.

Do less, but better. 

Why do we struggle to make the experiences of today elegant and simple? Part of the reason is that technology is advancing exponentially, meaning we have more and more touchpoints and data to take into account. But it's also about human behavior. In trying to make sense of a complex world, we often think we need more—more tech, more content, more segmentation. This leads to more departments, more meetings and more chaos.

Consider this: What if we need less? If we focus on the essence? Greg McKeown, author of the book Essentialism, puts it this way: Essentialism is not about how you get more things done, but how you get the right things done. Doing less is not a goal in itself, it's about creating space to excel in what really matters. Though his book is not about design, it certainly could be. Nest is a good example of this. When other smart thermostats got larger screens and more features, Tony Fadell designed one that does everything by itself. It learns from and adapts to user behavior and therefore becomes fully automatic. His design philosophy turned something as mundane as a thermostat into something so desirable that people are willing to pay 10 times the price of a normal device. 

Empathy and vision.

Designing experiences that are easy to use is not easy. It starts with seemingly simple questions: What does the best customer experience in my industry look like? What is the basic need we must fulfill? How can technology offer a unique solution for this? And then: What elements do not contribute to this? Research, interviews and data help with answering these questions, but the final answer requires a combination of empathy and vision. 

Only with a sharp design vision are you able to meet the conditions for good design. A design process in which user feedback is central, in which prototyping, and testing are used to create innovative interactions, and in which work can be done on distinctive UX—the swipe by Tinder, the Weekly by Spotify, or the Story by Snapchat. A balance between a grand vision of the future and practical design for today is needed. Only then will life become more fun and easier. 

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Daniel Sytsma
Daniel Sytsma is chief design officer EMEA at Isobar and executive creative director at Studio Kraftwerk.

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