Less really is more.

Back in high school, I received a bit of sage advice from one of my studio art teachers. Mine was a magnet school with a special arts program for aspiring creative types, so teachers were more like professors, and a senior portfolio was expected to rival that of a third-year college student. My own portfolio garnered a scholarship for one semester at Houston’s prestigious Glassell School of Art—an extension of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Guiding me on presentation, this teacher advised that I not try to show all of my work. Instead, I should limit my portfolio to a handful of my very best pieces.

Years later, my boss had a very similar approach, though his language was somewhat more crude: “It’s time to kill some babies,” he’d say. This was his figurative way of expressing that the moment called for making tough decisions about what to keep and what to cut, even when it hurt to cut anything at all.

There are certainly things that are better with more. We are programmed to want more, but most of the time it’s really the quality—not the quantity—that matters.  When it comes to design, as in life, the magic is in figuring out how to balance your efforts so you are doing fewer things, but you are doing them better.

Why less is more in design
Design is about guiding the audience to information and emotion that produces a reaction. The human brain can only take in so much at once, so the more you try to accomplish, the less impact each element will carry. If your website homepage shows 20 links “above the fold,” the average person will look at a few of them and move on. If your advertisement has 4 photos and just as many paragraphs of copy, the core message will be diluted. If your product has too many buttons and switches, it is too overwhelming for the user.

LessIsMoreBy getting rid of clutter that just isn’t necessary, you gain the clarity needed to direct the user’s attention to what really matters.

How to reduce when it all seems important
Maybe you’ve eliminated the “clutter” and realized you still need a lot of buttons to handle multi-functionality, and your website really has lots of helpful information that you want people to find. Great! All the more reason to make it user-friendly. It may be hard, but sometimes you have to kill some babies.

Here is a helpful 4-step exercise:

1) Set a rather arbitrary and uncomfortably low number of acceptable items.
2) Outline your needs from most critical to least.
3) Explore ways that you could make it work if you really had to.
4) Go ahead and add back in one or two things that would make the greatest improvement.

What you will find is that some of the things that seem important really are not, and there are more innovative ways to simplify information and solve problems. In the end, you will have a product that is less demanding on the end user, but also more compelling, because it stays true to what is important instead of distracting attention to less critical matters.

Apply this to life
The principle works in other areas of life. Do you feel like you have too many projects to do any of them well? Do you spend too much time on things that aren’t very important to you in the long-run? Too much junk in the house that could probably find a better home—including the trashcan?

Start by prioritizing your life with some serious questioning. What is really important to you? What do you want to accomplish this year, or over the next 5 or 10 years? How do you want to be remembered by friends and family when you’re not around?

Look at the things that currently take up time, money and space in your life and see how they line up to your short- and long-term goals. It will suddenly be clear that some things are demanding far more than they are actually worth, and it’s time to free up that energy for other things.

You can practice on your closet. Eliminate every article of clothing that doesn’t make you feel excellent, and when you shop for more, limit new purchases to things that meet the same strict criteria. Stop wasting time deciding between 50 shirts every day, when you don’t love most of them. You’ll get your time and sanity back, and still know that you look your best every day. Even if your clothes cost a little more now, you’ll know it is money well-spent.

I’m telling you, folks. Quality over quantity.

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