Keep it simple with KISS: a fundamental design principle you should know

Keep it simple with KISS: a fundamental design principle you should know

There’s a saying the US Navy coined in the ‘60s: “Keep It Simple, Stupid” — or KISS for short. The idea behind it is that most processes or systems work best if they’re kept simple. Unnecessary complexity gets in the way of purpose and should be avoided at all times.  And when you’re in the military, its incredibly important to send and process information quickly and without ambiguity.

“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler” —Albert Einstein (paraphrased)

The KISS principle — aka Keep It Short and Simple or Keep it Simple and Straightforward for those who don’t like the ‘stupid’ part — has since been adopted by anyone who needs to relay information quickly and effectively — from military personnel to journalists and designers. Here’s how to apply it to your work.

Keep it simple: why less is more

The simpler something is, the easier it is to use. With fewer distractions, choices, and clutter, we can’t help but go from A to B more efficiently.

This is especially important when designing a product, website, or app. Humans by nature prefer simpler designs because they are easier for our brains to process. That is part of the reason why things like Apple products are so popular. In comparison to competitors, like Microsoft’s busy branding, they feel like a breath of fresh air with their cool, minimalist products and clean white packaging.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” – Steve Jobs

But there is such a thing as being simple to a fault. Sleek design can’t make up for limiting a user’s ability to perform their desired task effectively.

Some things naturally need to be more complex because the user needs to be able to do lots of things with it. For example, a computer needs to have more features than a typewriter. But the KISS principle can still be applied, it just needs to take into account user’s needs.

Striking the right balance between power and simplicity is an ongoing mission, and features need to be constantly evaluated. As Steve Jobs proved with the Mac, even something as useful as a PC can be pared back and simplified. This is because the audiences’ needs are continually evolving, as is the designer’s understanding of these needs.

Quick tips for applying KISS to your designs

  • Use charts and diagrams as much as possible. Presenting information visually is easier for the brain to process complex ideas or processes. Just remember to keep your designs as clutter-free as possible. If you need to include lots of information, consider spreading it out over several sheets within your diagram or creating multiple diagrams. And always revisit, evolve, and distill your finished design, removing unnecessary information as you go.
  • Take advantage of universal icons. One example is the hamburger menu, which keeps information tucked neatly out of the way until the user is ready to access more features. It’s also familiar, which means the viewer doesn’t have to expend any more mental energy trying to figure out what it means.
  • Invest in user-friendly software. If you’re in charge of a team, then work with apps that make it easier for you—and them—to manage their work. Diagraming tools save time thanks to editable and shareable templates and keep everything in one easily accessible place.
  • Use wireframes to plan your work. It’s easier to keep things simple if you think through your designs from the start. Don’t just subtract things without purpose: create a skeleton framework and you’ll be able to strip away the inessential parts without damaging usability or function.
  • Make your design neutral and classic. Not only will it stand the test of time — but it’ll also look less fussy. That doesn’t mean it needs to be boring: instead, make embellishments subtle and unobtrusive. Remember—pared-back doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty.

Final thoughts

When creating anything — whether that’s a graph, an app, or an email, take a step back and see if you can simplify any further. Revisit things as you learn more about your user’s needs, and you’ll be able to tune the features as you go.

And remember, when we work closely with something, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to use it for the first time. For example, a business owner might not be able to see how their website is a cluttered mess because they’re so used to navigating it. In situations like these, it’s a great idea to run the product over with someone who has fresh eyes. They’ll be able to tell you quickly whether or not you’ve really kept it simple… or not.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).