An Event Apart: A Philosophy of Restraint

by April 3, 2012

In his A Philosophy of Restraint talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2012 Simon Collison outlined his design philosophy and how he applies it to Web projects. Here's my notes from his talk:

  • What we do is far too flexible to dictate any set of rules. Design is messy.
  • Yet we design to communicate. We have a responsibility to take images, text, and more and communicate something to a large or very specific audience.
  • Good designers always need to justify decisions. One way to justify decisions is to look for surprise and delight. As designers we should have something to offer. Otherwise, we might as well let the client do the design work.
  • “To delight someone is to give them a small lesson in seeing the world as something good.” –Frank Chimero
  • Design seeks emotive responses. Personalization helps people believe sites are made for them. Personally recognizable styles aren’t a bad thing.

Design Aesthetic

  • There isn’t a design aesthetic for simplicity and restraint. Lots of white space, minimal, and clean are abstract constraints. They prematurely force us to throw things away. In reality, many of the things we have in our sites may need to be there.
  • Put the design aesthetic to one side
  • Find balance between function and creativity
  • Don’t suppress your own creative style
  • Cut loose, find surprise and delight
  • Justify the decorative bells and whistles


  • We don’t design Web pages we design systems. Systems are foundations that help us prepare for the future. They can help us with grid systems, color, layout, and collaboration with others.
  • What we build is never finished. Web sites need to flex, grow, and adapt to new devices.
  • BBC is developing a global design language in public. Sharing design philosophies and components online helps us learn from others.
  • We need to build a foundation for complexity.
  • Devise a holistic approach for all project but also a detailed project-specific system.
  • Invest time in flexible pattern libraries that prepare you for eventualities.

Embrace Constraints

  • Having complete freedom is probably the worst way to start a project.
  • Constraints are everywhere in contemporary culture: art, music.
  • Make sense of the constraints you are given, look for constraints you can apply. Make constraints a feature or a selling point.

Exercise Restrain

  • Most popular culture does not exercise restraint. Restraint makes us stand out in a world without restraint.
  • Respond to the problem in the simplest way possible.
  • Visual swatches are great tools for opening conversations. They’re not deliverables, they’re for discussion.
  • We need to immerse ourselves in our subjects. Design a few responses first not solutions.
  • Discover what can be put aside.
  • Avoid misplaced vernacular and cliché -it can make you look stupid.

Simplicity & Complexity

  • Rethinking data allows you to make sense of complexity. Unleash complexity in orchestrated phases, and increase power gradually. Over a users lifetime, do they have the right power?
  • Gradual engagement is a design approach to release functionality more gradually. Good systems bear the weight of complexity. Embrace new models for organizing data. Find simplicity in the data flows. Don’t be afraid of obvious approaches –people will be grateful for the familiarity.

Between the Lines

  • We can make assumptions about people and can map expected outcomes to them. People understand emotions because we can see faces. Don’t underestimate people –they can fill in blanks.
  • Anticipate people’s mental models and think through how they’ll interpret meaning. Reveal only what is necessary. Let users find their own stories and be part of the experience. Trust people to make sense of things.

Affordances & Type

  • An affordance is a quality of an object that allows an individual to perform an action.
  • Affordances are all around us but they’ve been overused on the Web (drop shadows, 3d dimensions, etc.) so we’re afraid of them. On iOS apps that use familiar real world designs can provide valuable clues on how to use services.
  • We need to exercise responsibility when using Web fonts.
  • Understand the power of attractiveness and create obvious opportunities for interactions.
  • But avoid unnecessary fakery, over-texturing, and excessive skeuomorphics.


  • To understand a site, trace the outlines of a site quickly in Photoshop or Keynote. At a fundamental level, you’ll see the hierarchy and obvious clashes.
  • Remove or lessen the impact of distractions
  • Avoid dozens of competing patterns
  • Don’t disguise calls to action

Focus & Content

  • Put the extraneous to one side. Focus on the task in hand, or add greater emphasis to stories.
  • With editorial design, people focus on telling stories and communicating more clearly. We’ve gotten away from that in the templated-CMS Web
  • Design with content and tell the story.
  • Split complex tasks into manageable elements, remove distractions, and simplify where possible.

Audit & Pause

  • A timely audit can prevent catastrophic failures, and shine new light on what you’ve learned. It’s never to late to stop and looks things over for problems. You’ll find new ways to communicate and solve problems.
  • Add some breathing time into your schedule. Make audits a regular part of your process. Never be afraid to rethink and rework.
  • Don’t launch. Instead, sit with your work and think about it. Give it some space –this will benefit it.
  • Stand back from your work to find some new perspectives. Get some feedback from the right audience for your work. Don’t be afraid of critique.
  • Systems, constraint, restraint, complexity, focus are design tools not just Photoshop or Illustrator.