Design is Math

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Design is Math

Harry Bartlett

The Importance of Simplicity in Design

Have you ever wondered if there is an underlying reason why some design is good and some bad? Arguably there are 3 mathematical principles that underlie effective design: simplicity, the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence. This post covers the first principle - simplicity. 

Here are two math related design sayings: “Less is more” and “Design equals addition through subtraction.”

And a related math saying: “The essence of math is not to make simple things more complicated but complicated things more simple.”

Let’s look at 2 successful brands: Apple and Nike and see how these principles apply.


Both companies have evolved to the point that they don’t need a word to communicate who they are. All they need is their logo - an apple and the swoosh. 

The graphic identity of both Apple and Nike have become simpler over the years like successful brands do. Most people’s lives are too complicated. Effective branding communicates simplicity, evoking a sense of calm that consumers appreciate. 

Which brings us to the “Design is Math” part. Effective design comes from having less elements, which in turn increases the importance of what is left. Try adding up the letters in your company’s name or the shapes and colors in your logo or the amount of letters in your tagline or all the stuff on your home page.  If it adds up to more ‘things’ than it needs to, it will be less effective i.e. less is more.

This is true even if it ‘makes sense’ to have more stuff. As the artist and musician David Byrne titled an album “Stop Making Sense,” - brand owners should understand that knowing what something means, is often secondary to the simplicity and elegance of visual form and the emotions it communicates. What is displayed needs to have meaning, but not literally.

For example, most people don’t know that the Nike swoosh is an abstraction of a wing from the ancient Greek sculpture the Nike of Samothrace. 


Nike was the Greek goddess of victory. It’s not of primary importance that people know this. They like it because it is a simple, elegant, ‘well designed’ shape that communicates movement. This is important to remember since design decisions are often made based on a literal reason for something when that’s not what’s most important to people.

The well-known designer Milton Glaser commented that ‘less isn’t more or having nothing would be best’. So he says ‘just enough is more’. The question for the designer then becomes - Good design is simple but how can it be done simply? This is the challenge designers and clients face. As Steve Jobs said:

“Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”

Understanding the importance of visual simplicity is an important first step. Then stripping away what is unnecessary, so only the most important element(s) remain.

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About the author

Harry started BI in 1998 and focuses on integrating best practices in branding, user experience design, Internet marketing, and technology to increase the value of an online presence.
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