The Power of Restraint

by David Heitman

In February 1913, as the Panama Canal neared its completion, Daniel Chester French and Frederick Law Olmsted (famed landscape architect of New York’s Central Park) were appointed to inspect the canal and the surrounding landscape to determine what artistic architectural improvements to the canal structures would be needed to make an aesthetic statement. Their conclusion? To add anything at all would be to gild the lily. Their report stated:

“There is little to find fault with from the artist’s point of view. The canal, like the Pyramids, or some imposing object in natural scenery, is impressive from its scale and simplicity and directness. One feels that anything done merely for the purpose of beautifying it would not only fail to accomplish that purpose, but would be an impertinence.

Designers and their clients continually face the need to exercise similar restraint when it comes to visual design. The same is true for writers, musicians and product designers. As William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, put it:

 The four basic premises of writing are: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.

Whether it’s a television commercial, a billboard or a logo, simplicity is always the best place to start, and the ultimate destination. We often talk here at TCA about how simplicity of branding is essential to our clients’ success—how they can really only “own” one thing in the minds of their customers and prospects. We spend a lot of time collaborating with our clients on de-complicating their messaging.

In our information-overloaded world where marketing messages pile up like newspapers on the driveway when you’re on vacation, only the most succinct messages get through. As  Zinsser put it, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words.” Less is more. Creating mystery is better than telling the whole story. One memorable point is better than a dozen forgettable ones.

Great brands are simple brands. Great ads are simple ads. The restraint shown by product and ad design leaders like Apple, Volkswagen or Bang and Olufsen makes their products not only memorable, but all the more desirable.

In addition to making communications memorable, showing restraint also suggests a sense of confidence and gravitas. Companies that pack in a description of every possible feature in their marketing pieces—like individuals who feel compelled to self-disclose every little fact about themselves—tend to look insecure and desperate.

As any teenager can tell you, trying too hard is about the un-coolest thing you can do.

President Calvin Coolidge seemed to understand this principle, and was famous for his taciturn personality and brevity of speech. An acquaintance of his once entered into a wager  with a friend that she could get him to say more than two words at a dinner party. As the guests all began to bid each other goodbye at the end of the night, the unsuccessful bettor confessed to the president that she had engaged in a wager to get him to say more than two words.

Mr. Coolidge replied: “You lose.”