As little design as possible

The goodness of a design is inversely related to the number of elements present. In other words, the more stuff there is, the worse the design.

This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; sometimes extra things add a bit of needed intrigue to a design. It’s more of a mindset; good designers want to simplify everything. From the user experience to the visual aesthetic, simplicity is key.

Dieter Rams, arguably the best industrial designer of all time, wrote that “good design is as little design as possible.” Josef Müller-Brockmann, one of the most influential poster designers of all time, artfully combined space, graphics, and type, to create simple and beautifully effective designs.

To pursue this mindset, let’s practice by designing a poster. Last night I was watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, so that seems like a good place to start. If you’re unfamiliar with 2001, here’s the trailer from its re-release last year:

2001 is the greatest sci-fi movie of all time and among the greatest films of all time.

First, let’s look at some of the old, classic posters for it:

1968_2001 Space Odyssey_11

1968_2001 Space Odyssey_01

1968_2001 Space Odyssey_03

Very 1960’s Hollywood I’d say. While these aren’t necessarily the style we want, they’re not bad and certainly give us some insight into the themes of the film.

The large geometric sanserif type used (Futura Bold) and strong color palette of blue, yellow, and red help inform our design choices.

There are unnecessary elements here, though: the art, some extra text, and general clutter.

Now let’s look at some fan-made posters:

by Change The Thought

by Brandon Schaefer

by Owain Wilson

by Jay Ryan

Some are better than others; regardless, we see a strong tendency towards bilateral (center-aligned) design. We also see a focus on two elements from the film: HAL 9000 and the black obelisk.

Now let’s start on our poster. First, drawing. I’m a terrible artist, and my drawings are always pretty sub-par, but it’s an immeasurably important part of the design process.

It’s always a good idea to do your designs on paper before putting them into the computer. You have greater freedom on paper because it is quick, tactile, grey scale, and flexible.

These don’t need to be masterpieces, and the final product will look way, way different. The point is to get the creative juices flowing, finding as many design avenues as possible. With a number of sketches, I can pick the ideas I like and set the rest aside for now.

You also never want to just throw away your sketches; elements of the unused designs might still come in handy down the line. Maybe the typographic treatment fits another layout? Maybe some of the elements (a circle, rectangle, color, or alignment) fits another type treatment? You never know!

I started with basic shapes–circles, squares, and lines–and the text. From there, I added colors, messed with the angles and perspectives, and otherwise tried to bring some of my sketches to life on the screen.





Some of these are awful, and that’s alright. They’re meant to be quick dips–the refinement comes once you’ve got a good idea. Or, a good-enough idea.

My good (enough) idea came while recreating an important control panel from the film’s climax. Here’s the poster which resulted from that effort:


Now, you might see things like this online with the caption “minimal 2001 poster” or something like that–something mentioning it’s supposedly minimal form. And here’s where a distinction needs to be made: this poster is not minimal. It uses only a few colors, a few shapes, and little text–but it is far from minimal. The entire bottom half (everything except the type) is far more art than design.

Minimal is “as little as possible,” not “clean and flat.”

So, for my next step, I removed all of the art, making it far more minimal:


This, though on the right track, lacked a true connection to the film. Also, the space, though plentiful, was not being activated. That is to say, the space, which is of equal importance to text and graphics, wasn’t being used. (Not to mention, there were no graphics.)

To activate the space, to give it purpose, I added a photograph from the film. Avoiding the tropes of using HAL or the obelisk, I used one of the astronauts, Dr. Frank Poole. By placing the image much in the way that it’s presented in the film–small, as if floating away from the camera–I remind viewers not only of that impactful scene but also of the space around the photograph (signifying actual space around the astronaut).


The layout, you’ll notice, I adjusted from previous iterations. I did this through mathematical adjustments, meant to help unify space, type, and image in a holistic package.

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