The No Fluff Design Method


If you believe that a good design is not one where there is nothing more to add, but one where there is nothing more to take away - a clean, uncluttered design where every piece of the design serves a purpose - then the No Fluff Design Method is for you. The No Fluff Design Method is an iterative and usability-driven approach to design, starting out with no assumptions and carefully testing each design decision for usability over aesthetics.

No Fluff Design works well with Agile Development processes and budget constraints. It produces basic working results quickly, then iterates over them frequently, adding more polish and nuance at each step.

Example: Designing a Board Game

No Fluff is best explained by example. I chose a board game prototype as an example because it is simple and lends itself to visual demonstration, and because I came up with No Fluff when I was outside of my comfort zone designing a board game. I now use the same approach for designing user interfaces.

Step 1: the Spartan Design

The first rule/step in a No Fluff Design is:

1. Start with the most minimalist design imaginable - the Spartan Design

A No Fluff design begins with a Spartan Design - the simplest design imaginable. Ideally this design will look laughable. The more simple and minimalist the Spartan Design, the more assumptions you will question during your design process.

For this example, we are making a simple board that shows players advancing from a start to a goal. The simplest way to make this board is:

board game - spartan design

The next rule of No Fluff - the central and most important one - is:

2. All decisions are made for usability reasons, not aesthetic reasons

So, unless you can think of compelling ways to make the above design more usable (as opposed to prettier), this will be the final shipped product! Luckily, you should be brimming with ideas for how to make this board more usable. I will show you what my thoughts for improving this design using No Fluff principles were.

Step 2: highlighting Start and Goal

The next rule of No Fluff Design is:

3. Fix the most important usability issue first

The first usability issue that immediately jumps out is that the start and goal positions should be more noticeable than the other fields, since they are more important:

board game - first iteration

Let's look at my thought process, keeping in mind the central rule that all decisions are made for usability reasons, not aesthetic reasons:

I enlarged the start and goal fields and capitalized their texts to make them more visible. I rotated the goal text to run opposite to the start text to maximize legibilty from all angles - it is a fair assumption that players will look at this board from different angles, so it should be equally legible from the front as well as back. Finally, I chose colors to highlight the start and goal fields. Bright primary colors were an obvious choice to maximize visibility (red, green, yellow, light blue). I chose red and green because we intuitively interpret green to mean 'start' and red to mean 'stop', which fits the function of the fields perfectly. I made the colors as bright as possible without being strenuous to look at.

Step 3: highlighting the intermediate fields

The fields in between the start and goal do not stick out enough -they tend to blend in with both the background and adjacent fields. Let's fix this:

board game - second iteration

The intemediate colors were chosen for usability reasons. First of all, I wanted adjacent fields to be as different from each other as possible to make them easier to distinguish. The simplest way to do this is by using two alternating complementary colors.

I had alternate designs using more than two colors though. Which brings up the next rule of No Fluff Design:

4. The simplest solution wins

I had to eliminate designs with more than two colors because they are more complex. If I had picked a design with 3 alternating colors instead of 2, for example, then one of those colors would not add anything to the board's usability and be gratuitous, violating the nature of No Fluff and of good design in general.

Red and green would have been the simplest choices, since they do not add additional colors to the board. But the problem is that they would de-emphasize the start and goal pieces, thus taking away from our previous feature. Which brings up the next No Fluff principle.

5. A new feature should not take anything away from an existing feature

Black and white would also have been simple choices as well and could have worked out, but black would de-emphasize the board's outlines. I ultimately chose yellow and purple because they achieve a delicate balance of standing out from the start and goal pieces while at the same time tying the start and goal pieces together.

Step 4: background

So far, the background of the board has been white. Is this really the ideal color? Almost, but not quite. White is a bit too bright, so it can be strenuous to look at for a long time and draws a bit too much attention to itself (as opposed to the board, where your attention should be). After a bit of experimenting, I changed the background to this:

board game - third iteration

The most important thing is that the background is not too close in color to any of the board colors. I have found that only gray tones and very bright blue tones work for this. I chose blue because gray tones tend to make the black outlines of the board spaces less clear. I also shaded the background to become lighter towards the center. This is not just for looks. Doing this highlights the game board, as if a light were shining onto it from behind, bringing the game board to the foreground and the blue tones to the background. This is an often overlooked point - the primary purpose of any background is to bring the foreground to the front.

Step 4 and a half: stuck already?!

Let's now consider the final concept in No Fluff Design:

6. When in doubt, leave it out

Every design change should definitely make the overall design better. If you have mixed feelings that a design is better in some ways but worse in others, leave it out.

An interesting thing happens at this point in the design: It becomes very difficult to add new features. I did have more ideas for how to improve the usability of this board, but I had reservations about each of them so I left them out. So, now what? The above design certainly is not ready to hit the shelves of Toys R Us, but it is getting difficult to add anything to it because of all these No Fluff rules and constraints!

This raises a crucial point in design - gathering requirements. So far, we have made a generic board. We have no idea from looking at the above design what kind of game this is. What is the name of the game? Is it primarily for adults or kids? For men or for women? Is it a fast action game or a slow strategic game? Is it for 2 players or for 20? Is it a race between people or between racecars? What is my motivation for getting to the end? We do not yet know anything about the theme and target audience of the game we are designing. If we use No Fluff, we cannot make any assumptions about these, so we are stuck with a drab and generic design until we find out more about what kind of game we are developing. Knowing the answers to the above questions would certainly give us more ideas for how to improve the design.

Step 5+: customizing and theming

This is where we change from designing a generic board to designing a board with a specific game in mind. For this iteration, I will give a real-world example:a game I made called WordBurst. WordBurst is a word game for 2-20 players that is best played in large groups at parties. The action is frenzied and chaotic, almost explosive, hence the name of the game. So, let's customize our board so that we have a board for not just any game, but for an explosively fast and chaotic party game called WordBurst:

board customized for a particular game

I chose the Jokerman font because it matches the festive party nature of the game. I could have written the name of the game separately at the top or bottom of the board, but integrating it into the board spaces seems simpler because it does not take up any extra space. I also jumbled up individual letters by slightly shifting and rotating them in different directions. This makes the text look like it is about to burst, matching the explosive nature of the game. I used complementary colors and black outlines on each letter to maximize contrast and legibility. The plain outlines of the original board have been shaken up a little with outlines that look more lively and, well, explosive, again matching the theme of the game. Finally, the sunburst effect in the background serves two purposes: it brings the board into the foreground, making it more visible, and at the same time reinforces the explosive / bursting theme.

This design is certainly adequate, but there is no end to using No Fluff to keep improving it. If I devoted more time to this design, I would experiment with these ideas:

  • polish / tweak the sunburst effect to be more realistic and draw more attention to the game board
  • polish / tweak the outlines of the game fields to be even more lively and irregular
  • fill text and board spaces with a brushstroke effect rather than with a uniform solid color, again adding to the lively chaotic party theme of the board and matching the style of the outline


Let's recap the principles of No Fluff design as encountered in our board game example:

  1. Start with the most minimalist design imaginable - the Spartan Design
  2. All decisions are made for usability reasons, not aesthetic reasons
  3. Fix the most important issue first
  4. The simplest solution wins
  5. A new feature should not take anything away from an existing feature
  6. When in doubt, leave it out

Why the No Fluff Design Method Works

It looks great

I have found that when I create a design off the top of my head and a design that uses No Fluff, the No Fluff design looks much better. This is a hilarious irony considering that No Fluff explicitly shuns visuals in favor of functionality and simplicity. But function and form are more interconnected than you would think, as are simplicity and beauty, so No Fluff creates visually appealing results not despite, but because of its focus on usability and simplicity. For real world proof that simplicity and usability can look great, just look at Apple products or Google user interfaces.

No Fluff can and should be used for things that are typically seen as purely aesthetic, like your choice of colors and fonts. No Fluff also does not mean that your design has to be drab or boring - there is no limit to how many times you can iterate over a design and find a way to improve its usability, so you can indeed end up with rich, sophisticated designs using No Fluff - as long as nothing in your design is gratuitous.

It eliminates clutter

Not only will you get rid of clutter, but clutter will never even make its way into a product that was designed using a rigorous No Fluff approach. By reducing clutter, No Fluff also has the interesting side effects of reducing costs and reducing confusion in the user experience.

It is iterative

No Fluff will create a workable solution - though a Spartanic one - quickly and maximize the amount of time you can experiment, gather feedbak, and rethink designs. This is the same philosophy that drives Agile Development.

A related benefit is that if a project's budget falls short or expenses are overrun, there will still be a workable product.

It questions everything

As a designer using No Fluff, you will need to question every decision you make, including some that you would never question otherwise. Especially when you start with a laughably minimalist Spartan Design. Why should your button be rectangular? What size and shape makes a pushbutton easiest to push, and how far should the button go down when it is pushed? What is the most useful size, shape, and position for the doors and windows of a room? This way of thinking is a great exercise because it forces you to make decisions very deliberately, and to research your decisions from a usability perspective before moving forward with them. It forces you to think like a 4 year old, always asking the question 'why?' on behalf of the end user. This is great not just because it is educational for the designer, but also because it ensures designers will keep their designs fresh by questioning old assumptions and habits.

It is general

No Fluff is not particular to any kind of product, so if you get creative you can use it to design anything, including the kitchen sink.

It is neverending

There is no limit to how many times you can improve the usefulness of a design, so a skilled and imaginative designer equipped with detailed information about his end users can use No Fluff to create arbitrarily complex and nuanced designs - very much unlike the Spartan Design that was the starting point.