Subtractive Visual Design

subtractive-designVisual design is an act of problem solving. You have a message to communicate and you seek to find a visual way to express this message. During the design process, you create graphics and text and organize them on the screen in the most effective way you can.

Additive Design

The most typical way to design is with an additive strategy. During the additive process, you add more visual elements to a design, such as color, texture and decorative flourishes. For example, you might add a lightly patterned background, a gradient fill in a text box and a shadow behind an eLearning character. I know I do this to make a design more interesting and appealing. Although the additive design process works, does it detract from the message in the end?

Subtractive Design

What would happen if you tried the opposite approach, known as subtractive design? You remove every extraneous visual attribute and element to strip things down to the essence of what you want to communicate. You ask yourself or an associate, does this background help or hinder the message? Do these colors move my purpose forward? In subtractive design, less is more.

A Stronger Focus

The advantage of the subtractive design process is that it gives your work focus. For example, in eLearning courses every screen or slide should have one purpose. It might be to convey a concept, to illustrate a process with a diagram or to provide an interaction. When you use a subtractive design strategy, you are likely to improve the focus of your designs by removing unnecessary clutter. This helps ensure your message is clear.

Subtractive Design In Action

Menu Example

Let’s look at a few examples, that I admit are a bit extreme. Suppose someone is creating a course for new supervisors at an automotive plant. This person is using a workplace theme for the course and the bulletin board serves as the user interface. The purpose of the menu below is to help users navigate.

But to make the board look realistic, the designer uses a stock photo with papers of all different sizes and colors, lots of pins and a few photos. The realism works, but it defeats the purpose. A menu should be easy to read and use.


Using the subtractive design approach, we remove every item that is not essential for creating the menu. We take off the photos, extra paper and pins, leaving the uncluttered and easy to decipher menu below.


Interaction Example

In the extreme case below, the focus is supposed to be on the interaction. An instructional designer might choose a clock background like this because it suggests time and productivity. The problem is that a very busy background becomes a distraction. Your eyes aren’t sure where to focus.

In addition, the brightly colored text box appropriately attracts our attention, but the color is a bit hard on the eyes. Without that background, the color won’t need to be as bright. Finally, the logo in the bottom right is extraneous. There is no need to place a logo on every screen during a learning experience. Logos take the focus away from the real purpose. This type of design screams for the subtractive approach.


Let’s examine the design and remove everything that is extraneous. We can remove the logo, the busy background and the over-saturated color and still convey the intended message. The subdued design shows that we want to focus on the interaction.


If you use this approach, you may find your work begins to have more power and greater focus. It takes practice to find the right balance between simplicity and a pleasing aesthetic. Perhaps the solution shown above is too simple. What do you think?

Try out subtractive design and let us know what you discover in the Comments below.

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  1. Taruna Goel says

    Hello Connie,
    I enjoyed the post and agree with the ‘less is more’ philosophy of design. Your examples illustrate the subtractive visual design principles effectively.

    I was pondering about the same concept sometime last year and was also inspired by others who talked of simplicity and subtraction.

    Here’s a link to my post:

    Your comments and feedback are welcome!

  2. Mayra Aixa Villar says

    Hi Connie,
    Great points and examples! I guess I am an advocate of subtractive design too. This sometimes has given me a hard time when I try to explain why “less is more” to clients who like overcrowded screens. But, it has been definitely helpful to make an effective transition from eLearning to mLearning design, where focus is the key. I truly believe that, even though visuals are very important to engage the audience and quickly transmit a message, when they are not fulfiling a clear purpose, they just become peripheral elements and therefore, obsolote in the learning process. Many thanks for this interesting post!

  3. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Mayra,
    Yes, subtractive design is perfect for mLearning and mSupport. You really have to pare things down until the design is about to break and then stop there. I went through that designing the Instructional Design Guru app. I really wanted to add flourishes, but in the end, realized that a very simple design that was transparent to the users was best.

    As to your visuals or no visuals — in eLearning (not mLearning) I find that a little eye candy is motivational, so I do use it there. That would make an interesting discussion. Hope to meet you sometime!

  4. Mayra Aixa Villar says

    Connie, I was thinking just the same. I would love to meet you some day! :)I agree on using eye-candy visuals as long as they can be engaging and also effective to get a message across. All the best!

  5. rick says

    I agree, but…

    There’s always a “but,” isn’t there?

    What I would have done with the cork board is to make sure I can make use of all the visual elements. The first thing I would have done would be to remove “Select Each Topic Above” as an unnecessary instruction. Most of the world is web savvy enough to recognize a pictorial menu. Even if they don’t the hand cursor over the hit area should be sufficient to alert them.

    Additionally, I would not have used only the papers. I’d have found a way to use the variety to my advantage instead of moving toward sameness in the final menu. The visual elements should support the topics. A combination of appropriate visuals with text makes for a more memorable interaction. So, yes, less is more in this case, but… add a graphic to your blank papers for impact (not just distraction).

    Your second example is exactly correct. I couldn’t tell WHAT the background was until I read your explanation. Looks like the “well” scene from Star Wars where Luke gets his hand cut off.

    Remember, even in eLearning, white space is our friend. Excellent article. I think a lot of eLearning designers would benefit from paging through the ads in high end magazines for a look at what effective use of white space and design elements looks like.

  6. Tom Richard says

    I’ve been pushing this concept for years and now I know it has an “official” name. Now … if we could just get this message across to graphic designers! What a battle this concept can be at times.

  7. Tom Richard says

    Oh, and I forgot to mention … let’s ditch those graphics that shake, undulate, shimmy, bounce, etc. Please!

  8. Megan says

    We have been using subtractive design in Australia for some time. Australian learners tend to shy away from “big production” elearning and favour white space.

  9. Allison Miner says

    I’ve been using this principle but I didn’t know what it was called. I have my students create PowerPoint presentations for a topic that they select. The biggest problem is the clutter on their slides and the illustrations/pictures often don’t match their idea. I can tell them over and over but until I actually edit their slides, they don’t get the concept. I use the analogy of putting together an outfit and how much care they take in making sure it fits, is coordinated, and makes the statement they want it to make vs someone that wears too much of everything. I think the biggest problem is that most people want to say everything they can think of but don’t realize that they have to severely reduce the message to one concept at a time. Thanks for the post Connie! I’ve got some new language to explain this concept.

  10. Brian Dickerson says

    Thank you for this article Connie!! Our Learning and Development group is just now embracing eLearning through the Articulate Storyline software. Some of us have only created written job aids with snag-it screen shots for visual example. A whole new world has opened up for us now and I can see how one could get carried away, assuming all authoring tool elements must be incorporated into every presentation…or worse, in every slide.
    It also seems best to understand who the audience is when preparing instructional material. While less is more concept may be effective for baby boomers, a bit of flair may be engaging to generation X-Y-Z.
    I am forwarding this newsletter to the team. Very helpful and we appreciate you.

  11. Connie Malamed says

    I agree. Some flair may be needed for any audience group. Use it to help promote the message and to be engaging. Don’t let it distract. It’s always a fine line and no one said Design was easy! Good luck on your products!


  12. Beth says

    I agree that a busy page is distracting. The use of color and imagery needs to be complimentary not obtrusive. I think that it should be enough to keep the leaner engaged but not distract them.

  13. Myra Mata says

    As a graduate student starting in the instructional design field, this article was very helpful because it provided very basic information, which may seem too simple to some, but it is very helpful to think about the basic for someone just learning about instructional design. After reading the less is more basic information, it allowed me to reflect on my own online learning experience to pick out things that could be improved or that appeal to me because of the way the online learning experience is designed. Thanks for posting such useful information!

  14. Tom Richard says

    Myra, You will find this career challenging and rewarding in a number of ways. However, one of my professors in instructional systems passed this along: “To pursue the career of an instructional designer, the first thing to accept is the burden you will carry of being right nearly all the time in a world that all too often won’t listen.” Be persistent, be ready to back up your designs, suggestions, etc. with research … and have fun! Oh, and know Gagne’s 9 events of instruction … they’re as relevant today as when they were written about 50 years ago. They even apply to the concept of distractive visual design!

  15. Joseph Roberson says

    As a visual artist, I abhor the notion of “eye candy.” Not because I think adding spice with color, texture, et al is inherently bad, but that it implies a secondary role for the visual presentation. The subtext is that words are the ‘real’ vehicle for the content. This verbal bias is at least partially the result of our educational system’s lack of emphasis on visual literacy. While in olden days word was king, today’s rich media is saturated with visual information. Therefore visual communication becomes more and more important in ISD. It’s like music with lyrics: if the music doesn’t communicate the message by itself, then the words are mere “ear candy” to make up for it. The visual elements should ideally communicate the content without the words at all. What can you communicate in a slide WITHOUT any text? If it does not communicate your content, it distracts from it.

  16. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Joseph,
    I respect your opinion but I think personally, I’ve come nearly full circle on “eye candy.” There are some concepts and ideas that are best expressed using words. But text alone can be dreary and dense. So that a graphic that is suggestive of the idea, which might technically be eye candy, can be motivating to a learner, because it is more aesthetically pleasing. Now, I’m not encouraging distracting borders or silly .gif animations, but something that relates but doesn’t detract. I find this topic interesting and I’m getting inspire to write an article about it! So thanks.

    Anyway, maybe the answer is minimal eye candy, such as that described above, is okay :-)


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