If you’ve ever watched an Olympic athlete, ballet dancer or professional photographer at work, you’ve likely thought, “They make it look so easy.” The same is valid for design: When it’s done right, you don’t see the hours, blood, sweat and tears; only the beautiful, final product. There’s no doubt, though, that simplicity and elegance take time — and talent — to execute appropriately.
“Once you see patterns in good design, you’ll notice them everywhere,” says Ricardo Galbis, a New York-based creative specializing in direction, brand strategy, user experience and interface design. For high-end brands seeking to master a genuinely sophisticated design, every aspect of branding should complement the company’s core message.
“Every element is necessary and intentional, as opposed to added fluff and decoration,” says Alaina Johnson, art director at Killer Infographics. “Everything is well thought-out — not only the concept and execution but also the materials used to present the information.”
This means there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for designs that radiate sophistication: Logos, intricate lines, subtle colour palettes and textures, a well-designed website and custom typography do little to embody pure elegance when each element is examined in isolation. The cohesiveness of all these elements combined is what creates a seamless and elegant end-product.
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Galbis posits that the term “sophistication” itself is relative. “There are different types of elegance,” he says. High-end department stores like Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue have had a specific clientele for decades — or more — and their customers expect a certain aesthetic. But there are also modern stores like Opening Ceremony and Dover Street Market that tailor their products and branding to a younger, trendier target market — and these stores may use drastically different branding elements, despite ultimately appealing to the same, exclusive audience as their more established competitors.
Less is more
There is one thing that many experts and designers agree upon when it comes to designing for sophistication: Minimalism reigns supreme.
When you pass by a high-end boutique, you may notice that there are very few actual products lining the shelves and racks. The aesthetic is clean and light, and the products are displayed as works of art. This is no accident. “In design, it’s less about what you want to include, and more about what you want to leave out,” says Johnson. “Minimalism is always a good route to go when trying to achieve something more elegant and upscale.”
Though each brand will take a different approach to the elements that go into elegance, Bhuiyan says that many luxury designs share a few common motifs. We’ve outlined his suggestions below:
- Detail, lines and borders: Luxury designs emulate a classic feel using shapes and edges made from thin lines. Thin lines and feature make borders seem handmade. After all, anything that’s intricate likely took careful thought and time to produce.
- Texture: Texture and repetition of an element in a pattern almost always lend the design a feeling of sophistication. In print, the composition is frequently used for luxury brands.
- Techniques: There are other elements of course, then thin, frilly and curvy lines characteristic of calligraphy. Here are two specific methods worth mentioning: Foil — especially gold foil — almost always results in an elegant sensation; and blind embossing, blind spot UV and other effects — especially in black or white — can also produce a sophisticated design. (“Blind” refers to when a plan is the same colour as the paper beneath it; it would likely be invisible if not for a subtle effect, like raised ink using a technique like thermography.)
Design is subjective; it’s one of the realities — and intrinsically fascinating aspects — of art. That being said, there are specific “unwritten rules” regarding basic design. (Using Comic Sans in a design project for a brand selling high-end handbags will get you laughed out of RISD faster than you can say “design crime.”)
At the end of the day, sophisticated design is simply good design. And when artfully executed, much like the triple axel on an Olympic stage, it comes across as effortless.
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