Elegant, efficient and sophisticated: my design philosophy

Posted on February 22, 2010.

As my career has evolved and grown I’ve found myself in new positions being asked to articulate my views on design. The words have evolved but the core elements remain the same. In my work I strive to design experiences that are elegant, efficient and sophisticated. Here’s why:

Elegant – elegance covers the smoothness, coolness and appropriateness of the aesthetics of the experience. This is the visual design goodness that wraps a core experience in a palatable, and hopefully desired, aesthetic. It takes the core brand values of the business and conveys them in ways that make the experience engaging and in some cases fun. It also applies to the micro-interactions that take place throughout that experience. That slide-out menu, the tasty bit of microcopy that just informed a decision and/or made you smile, the transition from step to step – all part of the elegance of the solution.

Efficient – use only the exact amount of steps necessary to complete a task and no more. Efficiency reflects a drive to get users to their goal in the shortest amount of time on task. Ask only the absolutely necessary questions. Force only the mandatory decisions and learn from previous experiences so that future interactions are informed. Strive to balance the needs of the business with the goals of your users working with the belief that an efficient experience will breed many return, loyal customers who will spread the gospel of your product and it’s ease of use to their networks.

Sophisticated – this is the technology portion of the equation. Build experiences that learn and understand your users. Your products should recognize the user, know they’ve visited before, remember what they did or asked for and provide intuitive information along the way to facilitate an easier process each time they visit. Use the sophistication of the technology to reduce the inhuman nature of the web and bring emotion, empathy, recognition and personal interaction back. Sophistication is not complexity. In fact, it’s the opposite when surfaced on the experience level. The complexity lives behind the scenes and drives what can only be described as “amazing” experiences for your users.

That’s my design philosophy.

What’s yours?


6 thoughts on “Elegant, efficient and sophisticated: my design philosophy

  1. Right on! My definition of the ultimate design is: So sophisticated (under the hood) that it's so easy (efficient and elegant) to use. You said it better.

  2. Jeff,

    Like you, my design philosophy has changed a bit over the years, and the words are occasionally switched out for others. Currently, it looks like this:

    Simple – create experiences that allow the user to complete a task and accomplish goals in the most straightforward way possible. This means having a deep understanding of who those users are, and having restraint in the face of growing scope.

    Obvious – create interfaces and experiences that don't need explanation. Users should feel like the interface was created just for them, at the very moment they're in. Location of elements, labeling, smart flows and clever affordances all contribute to this obvious quality of interfaces.

    Polite – an interaction is a conversation. As with a conversation in real-life, we should strive for respect in our interfaces. Feedback, clever error handling, anticipatory interfaces and smart copywriting are some elements involved in creating a polite experience.

    Thanks for the post – great stuff!

    1. Yeah, those are fantastic qualities in a design philosophy. I especially liked your mention of “having restraint in the face of growing scope” which seems to always be an uphill battle in established companies. Startups may prove more malleable on that front.

      I also agree fully with obvious as a component of design. If I need to perform an action I shouldn't have to hunt for it. It should be obvious how to do something — even in a just-in-time context.

      And finally, conversation (which should always be polite – my wife constantly reminds me 🙂 is critical to the interaction. Tell your side of the story. Wait for user feedback. React. Tell the next piece. And do it in a polite and helpful manner. Love it.

      Great approach.


  3. relevant. comprehensive. direct. decisive. insightful.

    lately, i'm making sure that people feel the power, speed and effectiveness of my mind in motion. i'm free with ideas and go big very quickly. you can be as polite as you'd like, but you also need to close. that means a little bit of pain along the way. people don't want to let go easily, or spend money, or trust you to drive the ship. we all need to do some amount of discovery, wrestling, proving worth, etc. sure, be as nice as you can in this process, but make certain you put in the real work and don't be afraid. we are always competing with the ever-formidable voice in his/her head that says “do nothing, wait on this, trust yourself, why should i listen to him/her?” you get my point here.

    1. Are you talking about the way you actually design or the way you run your client engagements? If it's the latter, that's one thing (not that I necessarily agree but how you run your business is for you to decide).

      However, if you're commenting on design then we have fundamental differences in our philosophy. The user of my design should never feel “a little bit of pain along the way.” That would be a failure on my part.


      1. some of the language was for effect, i'll admit, but I mostly meant it as i said it. just as my language may seem extreme, saying it should NEVER be painful is a bit harsh for me. you and i go way back and are both smart dudes. it's cool if we disagree on this. variety is the spice of life. i just wanted to make sure i threw a different perspective into the mix!

        a good half of the clients (and maybe more) bring JUST their personal perspective to the table. they no relevant data to support the marketing moves they are about to make. I say JUST because they will not be the consumers of what's being produced, pitched, etc. they're out of touch. they're opinion is not as valuable as those of the marketing professional who does this work day in and day out, has seen what works, can see what people are buying, etc.

        clients often view the work as tastemaking. marketing is less about creating demand than it is about finding and following demand. publicity creates demand. you can put a twist on demand, but you can't really create it from scratch. you can't really will it into being. many believe that design is purely subjective, and think that you shop or buy design. i can go on and on about this, but minds shouldn't be for sale. they should be for hire, to work on behalf of an effort – ultimately to serve the consumer (and not the client or the marketing pro!)

        let me pause to be clear, especially since i am using some provocative language. i care a ton about what i do, and i absolutely give my clients 100% of what i have. this is exactly why it has to hurt some times. otherwise, you are underserving the client and their audience. you are laying down to someone who doesn't know what they need, why they need it, how to do it, etc etc. you know what i'm saying here. every creative does.

        there are some very savvy, smart clients who have done their home work. i'm not speaking to them here. i'm talking to the others, the majority who really don;t get what this is all about.

        look at this from another angle. it's like they say in sales, if you don't close them then someone else will. that person may let the client down, not care as much as you, not have your talent, etc. you can't afford to let that client get less than they can. you would be slacking off, in a way, and doing them a disservice.

        you need to fight some times and that means a little pain before it can all feel good. if it goes too easy, then it may not be the best work that's possible. they should have separation anxiety from preconceived notions. those thoughts don't typically lead to the winning solution. they should be forced to think about what might be successful despite it not being their idea. if they had the answers, they wouldn't need our ideas and talents.

        i'll close by saying that, for me, feeling this way is not arrogance. it's believing that all of the time, effort, experience, trial and error, wins and losses, and talent you've cultivated for 10, 15, 25 years is exactly what the clients wants and needs. they wouldn't be seriously considering you or already working with you if they didn't. you give them less and you are essentially telling them they are not worth the best that you're capable of doing for them. i don't know too many clients who are willing to pay someone to give them a half, quarter or no effort. you do exactly what they ask you to do and you're almost giving them nothing.

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