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  • Sara Nordling

Principles of Design: Economy

Scarf detail dark gray and white, satin weave gradient stripes.

In design economy is, as Mies Van der Rohe stated it, the principle of, “Less is more.” It is having just enough in the design and not too much. It is also described as “elegance.”

So, after all the other principles I have discussed, it comes down to understatement and not adding things in?! It may seem like the anti-principle of design. It certainly is in constant tension with variety and perhaps also rhythm. Economy, unlike unity, does not have to be used in every design. Or as Robert Venturi’s comeback to Van der Rohe, “Less is a bore!”

Graphic of rectangle with rows of 3 squares, each row a different color.

This may be a fun design, even a good design but it is not an example of economy.

There is too much going on.

If you haven’t grasped it by now, design is a balancing act. Not just in the principle of balance but it the tensions created between the principles and which ones you want to play the starring role in your designs.

Let’s get back to economy. You may have some designs you have created along the way, either from the challenges or from other designs. Perhaps you never wove them because for some reason, they just weren’t “right.” Here is the opportunity to put economy into practice. Start by taking out 1 or more elements in your design. If it has many stripes, for instance, reduce the number. Pare down your design to only those items that are essential. Once you have done that, you are working with economy.

Rectangle with one fat line towards one long edge and 2 thinner lines toward the other edge.

This design is much more economical than the one above.

It is understated and pared down to "just enough."

Sometimes I watch Project Runway. On many of the critiques, at the planning stage and also in final judging, is to edit. In designing you may have many, many ideas! That’s okay. They all can’t be used in one design, however. When I edit my work I think about economy. I don’t always end up with the most streamlined and elegant design as a result; but, I have thought about it, considered it, and made choices. In other words, edited.

Graphic of square with one thin vertical and one thin horizontal line both about a quarter from the edge.

Another example of economy in design.

You can change the colors as well and the design would still show economy.

It is no coincidence that I chose this principle to be the last one considered. With all the ideas swimming in your head from all the other principles it is tempting to go wild with your designs, to add in as many principles as you can! I don’t want to rain on your parade, do design with abandon. Edit with a critical eye. In the end you may reach economy. If not, okay, you will have made a better design than before and you’ll have many more ideas to use in the future.

Scarf detail plain weave background supplementary warp of eyelash yarn

This scarf, while have varied hues and textures, shows economy because the weave

structure is largely plain weave, the hues are analogous, and there is only the addition

of the textured eyelashes creating interest on the surface.

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