The Fight Against Obvious

The first people to ruin design are other designers. Absorbed by concepts such as “form follows function” and the belief that clarity is absolute, we self-righteously crusade towards making “more obvious” design.

This is the argument against the colossus of clarity. This is the argument which suggests that “seeing it” isn’t the be–all and end–all. This is the argument that design doesn’t become more obvious, it simply adheres to the homogeneity which riddles our industry—a result of conditional familiarity.

It is because of our pursuit for ultimate clarity that our initial reaction to design or art is to strip away any sophistication from it and instead retreat to safety—to more obvious solutions. We seek to remove any bit of ambiguity out of fear that we aren’t being straightforward enough. We’ll continue to dilute anything in hopes of reducing it down to water again because we suspect that’s what is easiest to digest.

For the sake of clarity, we sacrifice soul. Because to dumb down your design, is to dumb down your audience.

“It’s really tempting to believe that the answer to your marketing problem (what to name it, how to describe it, what to write about it…) is to be obvious, brutal, direct, hyper-clear.

And that can certainly work. It works for fire alarms. It works for actionable, compelling direct marketing copy.

But for the rest of us, the rest of the time, it’s elegance that lasts. That’s because elegance trusts the user to make the connections, gives the user the power to build a use case, earns a secondary meaning.

Obvious is a trap, the last resort of an artist who can’t think clearly about what to do next.”

—Seth Godin

There are still people who have never noticed the arrow in the FedEx logo. There are still people who don’t realize the Amazon logo is smiling or connects from A to Z. The Starbucks name makes reference to one of the characters in Moby Dick and is by no means an obvious name for a coffeeshop. You can resort to the obvious, but with that decision you lose the experience of delight—of discovery.

Must we stop rewarding people? Must we stop allowing people to have that aha moment? Must we assume our customers or audience need us to spoon feed them? Must we prioritize immediacy over longevity? Must we give way to obvious over elegance?

We can’t be treating design as a multiple choice quiz where we’re seeking to make a definitive decision of clarity. Instead, we must embrace the ambiguity and openness which comes from writing essays. Let people read. Let people think. You don’t have to hand out the answers. Let us fight the obvious and dare to create something worth remembering.