Lately, I’ve had a few conversations with designers who struggle to see the difference between substance and style. Now, I am not an expert, but the distinction between substance and style is often in the forefront of my mind. Substance is about essence. Why does something exist? Style, in turn, is the outward expression of substance. How is essence expressed in look-and-feel? The substance of a thing should ultimately inform its style.
In an ideal world, style elevates substance. Rather than being a limitation, this interdependency forces additional creativity. If you don’t have to design within a box, you’ll never figure out how to design your way out of the box.
You have to understand the substance of an book, tool, application, etc. before you can design a solution. Likewise, to direct a design solution, you need to have some sense of the substance. This dichotomy fades as you drive to a point of completion. In other words, when a project is complete, anyone should be able to look at the completed project and immediately understand the connection.
The final style of an object should say something about its substance. Yet, and this is important, style never replaces substance.
For example, many designers are being tasked with the design of information graphics. Information graphics should major in substance and minor in style, in my opinion. The final design solution for an information graphic should elevate the essence of the information. Achieving this goal will elevate the design solution and produce an information graphic of lasting value.
To make sure that you are effectively marrying substance an style, try to answer the following questions:
- What is the purpose of this __________?
- Who is the audience for it?
- How will it be used?
- What does success look like?
If you invest time in understanding the answers to these questions, you’ll produce stronger and smarter design solutions that live longer in the world.