Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What does the Word "Clean" Mean in Design?

Have you ever, for a school project or for personal use, designed something? Anything, a website, an info-graphic, a presentation, a video, etc. If you have, the chances are that when asked for feedback you either received "It's clean, quite good." or "It isn't good right now, needs to be cleaner". You nod your head and say "OK", but without any better understanding of what makes your design good or bad, and no idea what that phrase even means in a concrete sense. In this post, I will discuss the meaning of such feedback, and some follow up questions to ask if someone does give you feedback involving the word "clean".

The biggest problem with the word "clean"  in design is that you cannot define it. 

Most of the time you can only define "clean" by saying what it is not, rather than what it is. "Clean" is not "noisy" or "cluttered". Even then, the words do not necessarily have a lot of concrete value. Even dictionaries have to define "clean" by saying it is "uncontaminated" and NOT full of dirt/marks/stains. (What is it not rather than what it is)
Everyone has a vague image in their minds of what "cluttered" and "messy" looks like; a room with clothes littered all over the floor and a desk filled with papers. That image will more or less be the same for everyone, and that is how we define "cluttered". But what is a "clean" room? One with absolutely nothing in it so it is "de-cluttered"? One with everything hidden out of sight so it gives the appearance of being not being "messy"? That is the difficulty with determining what is something "clean", and that carries over into design. Because if everyone says that the product should be "clean", but no one knows what "clean" looks like, how are you supposed to know what to aim for throughout your design process?
Designer intuition might tell you that an info-graphic with 200 words and 7 different images on the size of a piece of A5 paper isn't "clean" and effective. And you'll know that another info-graphic with only a couple of phrases and a central image is "cleaner", but is it "clean"?

Why else is "clean" such bad feedback? 

It does not give the designer something to work on or iterate on. If someone says "the font makes it difficult to read" about your info-graphic, you have something to go back and work on. But if someone tells you "your info-graphic needs to be cleaner", what are you supposed to do? Start again with a different style? That's impractical. Receiving poor, practically useless, and unworkable feedback is the same as receiving no feedback at all.

Here's what to do:

The following are some questions you can ask the person evaluating your work if they tell you the magic C-word. These questions aim to get more specific, and identify areas that can be worked on by the designer.
(Source: Dotto, Mark. ""Cleaner"." "Cleaner" · @mdo. N.p., 4 Jan. 2011. Web. 08 Mar. 2017. <http://markdotto.com/2011/01/04/cleaner/>.)

  • Is the current product more effective than option B and C?
  • What is your first impression/reaction to seeing these options? What feelings do they evoke?
  • What do you like about the "unclean" design? 
  • What don't you like about the "clean" design?
  • In the "clean" design, what is the focal point or call to action? What does it entice you to do? 
These are not perfect questions, but the point is to keep that person talking so they can evaluate your work more in depth and you can understand them better. When you receive feedback, it is crucial to keep asking questions and draw conclusions. Without further questioning, you will end up with a "clean" design that no one, not even you, knows why it is the way it is.

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