Good design is as little design as possible

September 22, 2016SEO & Content

By Liam Gardner – Designer at King Content

The first recorded ‘graphic art’ or ‘graphic design’ dates back to the animal carvings of 30,000 BC in theChauvet Cave of Southern France. In today’s world – with street signs, packaging or that feeling we get when we see the golden arches – graphic design influences us whether we realise it or not. Where product and service design seem to be changing our world on a daily basis (Tesla, Uber and LifeStraw to name a few), graphic design has to work a little bit harder to influence social and behavioral change; to get people to stop and take notice – at a conscious level. Here I look at the influence and impact that graphic design, both good and bad, can have on society.

Starting with the most notorious example of bad design in the 21st century, we head to the United States presidential election campaign of 2000. Not a trained graphic designer, Theresa LePore, an election supervisor in Palm Beach County, faced the age-old design problem of too much text, not enough space. The format had to comply with predetermined ballot specifications where users would punch a hole next to the candidate they wanted to vote for. That year there were too many candidates to fit in a single column, so LePore created an alternate layout which placed candidates on both sides of the ballot paper (first on the left, second on the right, third on the left and so on). If you wanted to vote George W Bush using this new layout, you punched the first hole (see below). Al Gore was directly under George W Bush. However if you punched the second hole on the ballot slip you wouldn’t be voting for Gore, but for Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party (the first name in the right-hand column).

If that explanation made complete sense to you, give yourselves a pat on the back. An estimated 2800 people voted for Pat Buchanan by mistake and George W Bush won the state election by 537 votes. A seemingly harmless redesign handed Bush the presidency and changed the lives of millions of people around the world.

Top left: Theresa LePore in 2000. Source: Michael Bierut, How to, 2015.

Top middle and top right: It took over a month to analyse and determine the vote outcome. Source: Michael Bierut, How to, 2015.

Bottom left: The original ‘butterfly ballot’ that caused the confusion and has since been immortalised in a poster for the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

Bottom right: Michael Bierut’s simple redesign which illustrates how the problem could have been avoided. Source: Michael Bierut, How to, 2015.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Far from it in fact. There are many examples of how good design has driven social change for the better, not least The Street Store initiative hailing from Cape Town. Founded in January 2014, The Street Store uses a beautifully simple poster series to recruit volunteers, encourage donations and serve as the physical material to hang the donated clothes on. The open source artwork helped clothe 3500 people in Cape Town alone and has led to more than 450 pop-up stores globally. Similar to the way product and service design engage a consumer, it’s the accessibility and simplicity of the design that drives human interaction. Watch the inspirational video.


The printing process to host a Street Store. People are encouraged to print and hang posters A, B and C at donation points and ask people to drop off clothes and shoes the next day. On the day, hosts put up posters D and E and ask people to place their donated items on the posters.

Lastly, the Sydney-based Mission Australia campaign of 2016 demonstrates how seemingly small visual treatments can have a big impact and force conscious interaction through relatable storytelling. Although this fits more under ‘creative’ as opposed to strictly ‘graphic’ it’s a powerful example of how design can get people to stand up, take notice and, more importantly, take action.


Left: Original unedited image.

Middle: Final artwork.

Right: Original to final transition.

As these examples show, it’s always the simplest designs that provide the most effective solutions and the disparity between the simplicity of the execution and the complexity of the process it took to get there is one of design’s best-kept secrets.

Here are some pearls of wisdom from two legends of the design world to consider when undertaking your next project…

“Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.” – Paul Rand

“Good design is as little design as possible.” – Dieter Rams

We forgive you, Theresa.


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