Sat. Jul 11th, 2020

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Knowledge Peace


5 min read


To understand timeless design, consider its opposite: transitory design, in which the focus is on current trends and styles to appeal to a particular group or to exploit a prevailing mood. More often than not, its strength is also the cause for its ultimate failure. It naturally appeals to a fixed audience in a fixed time, excluding those who do not fit that particular historical and cultural context.

With this kind of design, content is often masked by trendy effects and is denied its rightful place in the hierarchy. As such, it becomes a mere aesthetic prop, and its value as a communication tool diminishes to the point that it cannot stand up to the changing winds of taste.

Of course, this is not always a bad thing; transitory design has its place. If a solution is based on a solid idea and sound design principles, then a transitory style aimed at a particular audience would not date it. If done properly and with balance, then it will have the benefit of being strongly communicative now and yet still accessible later.

On the other hand, if a design is meant to appeal to a broad audience and over a relatively long time, then it must have the strength to stand on its own. This is where timelessness can work magic and where the designer must be able to justify every element on the page, along with placement, size, and color. This makes for a fully formed design that fits the client’s objectives, history, audience, and voice.

It also forces one to serve as their own strictest critic, which is essential for any master designer.

Achieving Timeless Design

The simplest principle to follow to achieve timeless design is this: the fewer elements you use to convey your message, the less chance there is for transitory styles and trends to creep in. Beyond this, below are some other ways to achieve timelessness.

Find A Solution In The Content Itself

If you can do this, you have succeeded in your role as a communicator. There is always an idea to be found in the problem. The key is to also find something unique and interesting about the problem that is worth bringing to the forefront. Paul Rand’s now famous IBM poster is an excellent example of this: he used an image of an eye, a bee and the instantly recognizable “M” to create a visual pun on the company’s name.

Bob Gill was another master of this technique. One of his solutions was to blow up “We hate small print” to fill the cover of a booklet that listed the terms and conditions of a car rental company. One of Gill’s greatest pieces of advice was this: if the problem doesn’t provide a unique and interesting solution, redefine it so that it does.

Simplicity Should Prevail

Basic concepts like shape, color, white space, illustration, and typography remain the building blocks of design, and even the briefest brush with history shows us that these are the elements that hold up the longest. There is a reason for this. They guide the eye, impart balance and distribute weight. We are very comfortable “reading them” as part of the design, but they are porous enough to absorb whatever value and meaning the designer gives them. By relying on the fundamentals – such as a

  • grid system
  • geometry
  • the rule of thirds
  • the golden mean
  • balance
  • contrast
  • juxtaposition

these elements can be arranged in a nearly infinite number of ways.

Avoid Ornamentation

Ornamentation is anything that is added merely for the sake of visual appeal. It is the unnecessary underlining of a heading, the redundant italicizing of bold type, the border around a page, gradients that don’t direct the eye, most drop shadows, stock imagery that adds no value, and certainly the fourth or fifth or sixth typeface used to “spruce up” a design.

The trend towards big graphical headers is an excellent example of ornament. These elements clearly exist for the sake of visual interest. They might suggest some of the website’s content (Apple, Adobe, social media, etc.), but they are essentially just transitory graphics that do not contribute to the overall design. If something on the page does not help to communicate the message, then it probably does not need to be there and will likely diminish the timelessness of the design.

“Astonish Me!”

Those are the words that Paul Arden calls “the best piece of advice ever given” from an art director to a young designer. Simple but effective, this advice encourages the designer who wants their work to endure to focus on astonishing the audience (or their boss, client, co-workers or themselves). Astonishing does not mean yelling or putting on a big show; it means creating something that will be remembered for its inherent value.

We have many great examples of such value, like the orange stripes of the classic Penguin covers, The Man With the Golden Arm poster, the Muhammad Ali Esquire cover and, most recently, The Pixel Blog, which does a remarkable job of blending beautiful illustration and page layout.

These and many other works show us what wonderful idea-driven design looks like while serving as testaments to long-lasting quality. Of course, no timeless design was conceived purely to be admired decades after the ink has dried or the website has launched. A timeless design is created simply to communicate an idea with strength and reason. Its timelessness is no more than an inherited quality of this singular vision. Perhaps this can be summarized in a simple juxtaposition: good designers provide solutions for today; great designers provide solutions that last far beyond.

The good designer slaps together snippets of trends, trying to include enough to please the client. Yet, as pleased as the client may be at the moment if the solution is not timeless – if it does not thoughtfully execute a good idea – then the design is destined to fade into obscurity.

It comes down to professional ethics. With all the effort we spend learning our craft, why would we turn to transitory shortcuts? Why give the client something that is not truly designed and that will not last? If we call ourselves professionals, then we need to hold ourselves to a standard that forces us to make designs that are reasoned, clever, interesting and able to communicate for many years.



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