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Essentialism - Building Brands By Design

by Elizabeth Freeman on 02/16/2016 | 5 Minute Read

Consumerism gave us more. More things, more choice, more consumption. For over 150 years, the pursuit of ‘the good life’ was something to be proud of and More ruled. Brands got bigger and shelves got larger.


But then more went too far.


More ran out of room. More ran out of resources. More damaged our planet. More cluttered our minds and stunted our decision making. And when hard times hit more became excessive.


We needed less.  


Simplification was our antidote, and we looked to reduce instead of add. Less noise, less material, less flourish. Minimalism, born in art in the 1950s, was championed by designers of all kinds and rose in prominence through the recessions of the 90s and 00s. Less entered the mainstream.

Today we live with More and Less. And both are here to stay.

As consumers we want choice and convenience, we want clarity and meaning, we want more functionality wrapped up in simplicity. We won’t accept less if it is bland or more if it is excessive or confusing.

As brand owners we need to innovate and grow, but with fewer resources. We have more on our to-do list with less time to do it.

And as designers or brand consultants we balance the needs of both of these groups. We discern what elements of the brand to minimize and what to maximize, what to eliminate and what to go big with. Because we know we can’t have it all.

So how do we manage the tension between More and Less?

The answer is Essentialism


Not Aristotle or Plato’s Essentialism but that of Greg McKeown who refers to Essentialism as the ‘disciplined pursuit of less but better.’

Essentialism can help brands, just as it helps people, to determine what is vital and authentic and to eliminate everything else. It can create a platform for brand owners and designers to go BIG with the few things that will truly differentiate the brand.

Essentialism can help us to choose when to have Less and when to have More. It gives us the confidence to say NO in order to say YES.


Essentialism allows designers to:

  1. Insist on clarity. If we aren’t clear on a brand’s intent and a brand’s essence, we can’t make design choices on behalf of the brand.
  2. Feel free to explore more not less, but to explore with purpose.

  3. Put the brand first in everything we do.

  4. Create designs that have clear communication and are rich and meaningful

  5. Say no to 100 slide decks and yes to 1 page briefs.


Essentialism allows brand owners to:

  1. Define a brand’s Essential Intent in precise and authentic terms.
  2. Have the confidence to say No. No brand can have it all.

  3. Eliminate the many non-essential projects in their pipeline and to focus on the vital few.

  4. Go BIG with the things that matter, making their execution effortless.

  5. Leave the office with a clear mind!

Essentialism is not a style choice

Essentialism is not a design style. It is a method. It enables us to make choices on behalf of the brand—to put the brand first.

As designers, if a brand’s essential intent is defined in a precise and meaningful way, we are empowered to make design choices. We can choose to go simple or complex or mix both.  We can choose a simple sans serif logo or one that continuously changes color and shape, simple illustrated icons or verbose written descriptions, a single color palette or a rainbow.  No matter the style choice, we have the clarity we need to develop a design system that is single-minded, purposeful, truly distinctive and never bland.


Essentialism is not for the faint-hearted

It is harder to say No. To make choices. To realize, you can’t have it all. It takes more effort and intelligence to be clear and succinct (we found it hard when writing this article!). To define your essence in precise terms. To be single-minded not safe. To be a brand for someone not everyone. It is easier to adopt a single design style rather than flex as needed.


But then who said it had to be easy?  


And who said you had to do it alone?


In the next Essential Design article we turn the theory into practice. We will explain the 4 steps to applying Essentialism to building brands by design—Focus, Eliminate, Create & Expand.


Written by Ben Cleaver and Marcus Hewitt

Ben Cleaver and Marcus Hewitt are the founding partners of Yellow, an Essential Design Company, recently launched in Brooklyn, New York. 

Yellow helps brands to focus on their essential intent, to eliminate excess and to go big with the things that really matter.  They deliver brand strategy that is precise and meaningful and visual identity systems that are single-minded and truly distinctive. 

Yellow is new, but Ben and Marcus are not. They have helped hundreds of companies to build brands by design including Toyota, ABInbev, Shell, Moet Hennessy, Philips and Viacom. 


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