Demystifying Design: An Argument for Simplicity

By Joe Duffy

Principal and chairman of Duffy & Partners, Joe Duffy is one of the most respected and sought after creative directors and thought leaders on branding and design in the world.

Joe’s work includes brand and corporate identity development for some of the world’s most admired brands, from Aveda to Coca-Cola to Sony to Jack in the Box to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. His work is regularly featured in leading marketing and design publications and exhibited around the world.

In 2004, Joe received the Medal from the AIGA for a lifetime of achievement in the field of visual communications. His first book–Brand Apart–was released in July 2005 and in 2006, he was recognized as one of the “Fast 50″ most influential people in the future of business by Fast Company.

What is design?

What is design? It’s art and commerce, fashion and environment. It’s industrial and digital, graphic and experiential.


What is design? It begins with ideas–ideas based in purpose. It requires a plan or a process. It yields innovation, invention or creation. It is successful if it elicits response–attention, desire, interaction or purchase.

Design is as much a process as it is an end product. The process should be simple. After all my years in design, I remain wary of the branding and design consultancies that sell the strategic process before the work.

  • The work should speak for itself.
  • Did it deliver on its objectives?
  • Did it break through in the market?
  • Did people vote with interest, conversation, interaction or purchase?
  • Was it beautiful?

That’s what really matters. It’s not about the ability to generate nor analyze reams of data or conduct hundreds of interviews.

Truly seeing vs. just looking

Smart design requires inputs and information for sure. The best strategy behind design is all about collection and collaboration–of people, talents, ideas, perspectives.

  • It’s about truly seeing vs. just looking.
  • It’s about being curious about what you’re seeing, what it means or what it could mean if used in a new way or combined with other ideas or images.
  • It takes a certain appetite and ability to digest.

Honestly it’s simple. The best talent understands that. Rarely does the most extensive or unique “process” produce the simple insights necessary to do more than document a situation. The proof is in the pudding. Talented designers create it.

To be successful, the business of design must deliver truth and unique beauty. To breakthrough, design must deliver creative differentiation.

Design process

As with any well-formed point of view, there’s a process to follow in design. Again, it’s a simple process.

  • It begins with collecting as much input as you can regarding a particular subject and understanding the context of the world in which that product or service will exist and compete.
  • It’s about looking for gaps in the marketplaces where others haven’t thought to go.
  • It’s about finding the truth of an organization, where they’ve come from and what they’re capable of.
  • And then it’s about organizing and mixing ideas and visual elements to deliver a succinctly meaningful and artistic perspective.

Design has been my business for over 35 years. But more importantly, when I think of it, design has been my way of life since I was a small child. A way of interacting with people and gathering perspective. A way of thinking and a way of organizing things in my life, so they would be meaningful, work better, look better. I know this is true for many designers.


It’s amazing to see how the power of design has grown in the past decade. People everywhere are singing the praises of design; looking to find the secrets of design creativity and infuse them into their work; seeking the benefits of beautifully designed products to use in their homes and their lives.

As a designer I see this as both an opportunity and a responsibility. The opportunity is to continue to use our craft wisely, to solve real business problems, to deliver a means to help people find products and services that are uniquely well suited to make their lives a little better every day. Getting there requires that designers and our clients keep things simple.


About ranman

Design educator with a Masters of Design degree. 32 years of design experience. View all posts by ranman

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