You have probably heard someone say, “That design is so clean!”
Or perhaps you’ve scanned your RSS feed and seen titles like “1000 Clean and Minimalist Designs”, “Super-clean, Simple, Minimal Website Designs”, or “How to Design Clean, Typographic, Minimalist Sites.”
I normally throw up in my mouth a little when I encounter such phrases. But I have to admit that I catch myself using these words unintentionally (on rare occasion, of course) when I am struck by a design that doesn’t rely heavily on design trends of the moment, but rather takes an approach that puts the content first, without much ornamentation.
It’s strange that so many people default to the term “clean”. A friend and co-worker wrote about this recently saying that using the term “clean” is “quite possibly the worst feedback anyone can ever give… It’s piss poor feedback.” While I agree with the larger point in principle, it got me thinking about the unspoken volumes of communication provided to us when someone uses a word such as “clean” to describe design.
The sum of our lives is sometimes conveyed as much in what we don’t say as what we do say. How we were raised, the things we were exposed to—the type of home we lived in, the style of clothing we wore, the company we kept—all left indelible marks on us as a person.
So I spent some time thinking about what “clean” means to me. My first thought was of my childhood home and chores. My mother taught us all how to help keep our home “clean.” Neat. Orderly. Not dirty, grungy or disregarded. And then I thought of my beautiful wife, whose ability to create the right atmosphere in any space comes from her desire to make any room into a clean, inviting, uncluttered space that draws you in and makes a place for you. Balanced. Harmonious. Peaceful and inspiring.
Suddenly, using the term “clean” to describe a design no longer made me want to retch. In fact, this word actually carries with it part of my formative years, things that shaped and informed my own personal aesthetic. Through this little exercise I realized that when people are describing a design, the words they use may actually be freighted with much more meaning and experience than we perceive.
That said, I do not support the egregious overuse of simple terms to categorize a style of design that can be subtle and varied. But the next time someone uses a word you consider generic or uninformed, take a moment to think about all the different things that one word could actually be communicating.
And then ask them to tell you more. Start a conversation around the design and give them other opportunities and other ways to describe the experience of seeing and interacting with your design.
In the end, we are all human and our experiences shape the way we communicate. Don’t be too quick to dismiss someone’s feedback just because of the language they use. Odds are, there just might be more to it than you realize.
P.S. If you are a designer working with other designers, you are responsible to expand your vocabulary and offer critical feedback that is concise and actionable. Do your homework and be honest. And don’t point to this article to try get you off the hook.