In the Age of Content Overload, Simplicity Stands Out

The average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds. Pathetic, right? Well, according to a recent study by the Associated Press, the average American attention span in 2013 was eight seconds. Yeah, eight seconds! That’s down from 12 seconds in 2000 and a solid one second less than your friendly, flighty goldfish. Combine the shrinking human attention span with a content overloaded society and it’s a wonder we notice anything at all! But just how content overloaded are we? IBM estimated that every two days we produce as much data as was generated in all of human existence leading up to 2003. Your measly eight-second attention span doesn’t allow you time to calculate just how much content that is, but trust us, it’s a lot.
With a dwindling attention span and massive content load, designers are more challenged than ever to get their client’s content noticed. So what makes anything stand out in an overstimulated environment? We believe simplicity and relevance are key. As the lead in Mad Men, Donald Draper, is famous for saying, “Make it simple, but significant.”
But that’s easier said than done, right? Making something simple means stripping it down to its core, leaving only what is absolutely relevant, yet absolutely compelling. So often with design, there are many different parties focused on many different objectives, causing the process to get bogged down and lose its primary focus — to garner attention.
And in an industry where so much is driven by data, the bottom line is that data doesn’t draw attention — design does. Striking an emotional chord with the audience is what gets their attention and that cannot be replaced by computers and numbers. That isn’t to say data is bad. Data gives direction, but creativity is what surprises and delights, and what sets one apart in a saturated marketplace. In order to strike emotion and separate a product from its competition, designers must maintain simplicity and relevancy. Just take a look at the past and present and you’ll see that those two touchpoints are the truest answers in this overstimulated market.
Next time you’re in the grocery store, take a turn down the cereal aisle. What catches your eye? Chances are it will be the simplest packaging that pops out from a background of busy designs filled with drop shadows and explosive color. But why? Because simple packaging acts as something of a resting point for your eyes. Instead of using design for shock value to garner people’s attention, many companies are now going back to simple designs. The early days of Quaker Oats were filled with simple, effective schemes, which perhaps caused other cereal companies to go extravagant to stand out. But we are seeing a shift as more and more cereals hit the market. The cereal aisle is the definition of oversaturation, giving the simplest design the leg up.
On the content side, the same rules apply — make it short and make it sweet. There is a reason Twitter only allows 140 characters. There is nothing better than a great one-liner. The trick is to place meaning within the space given, because if you can’t catch someone’s attention within that space, then you’re not going to catch their attention. Period. But making content short and significant is easier said than done; it’s also what separates great copywriters from average copywriters.
The ultimate goal in all of this is to pull simple content and design together and into one package. There is no way to separate a good design from attention-grabbing written content — they go hand-in-hand. If one doesn’t work, the package as a whole fails to deliver. So even though simplicity and relevancy reign supreme, the process to get there can be much more involved. I never said it would be easy, but as you will likely find out, it will definitely be worth it.