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Fluff (N.): something inconsequential

Source: Merriam-Webster Online English Dictionary

In design, this is often viewed as unnecessary ornamentation. In web design, where load times are important, there is a move almost entirely away from this. However, when working on print design or even video, what techniques can help determine if there's too much fluff, too little fluff, or just the right amount?

Let's see some examples with varying level of fluffiness:

Advertisement for ASIS

Advertisement for KENWOOD

Or in Video you can see:

Daily Show Interview, when look closely there's a lot going on. The stripe at the bottom showing Daily Show with the white swirls, red blur and some sort of text on the bottom. The top doesn't just say Paramount or even Paramount on red it also has some white shape which is very subtly moving.

Today Show with Matt Lauer, has some random geometric shape with animation and lighting effects.

How to Install a Vinyl Sticker from VinylDecalStore, is simpler yet with basically text on a background to make it more visible.

With too little fluff it can at times, like in that VinylDecalStore video, appear like an amateur designed the ad. When is there enough and when is there too much?

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    Wow, what a fantastic question. I don't have much for you except to quote Albert Einstein, who was obviously thinking about this very problem when he said: > “Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.” ― Albert Einstein – MG_ Jul 30 '14 at 12:00
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    I add no fluff. Everything has a purpose. The Daily Show and Today Show items you point out are specifically designed to pull the eye and give a sense of movement. They aren't "fluff" at all. The ASIS ad.. overly controlling client wanting a buch of "techno goo" inserted. Kenwood, again, no fluff there. – Scott Jul 31 '14 at 20:42
  • @Scott "techno goo" sounds a lot like fluff, client or not. Designer could've pushed back, or could've done something completely different while still being techno-goo. And what of the VinylDecalStore video? It's captions are just as prominent and visible as The Daily Show, so you find it to be just as well designed? – Ryan Aug 1 '14 at 11:23
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    All good fluff/decoration worth keeping does have a purpose, but it could be a soft/aesthetic purpose, like establishing a hierarchy, catching the eye, evoking a mood, fitting a fashion or style, making a design more balanced, etc etc. These are valid purposes: meet them to just the right amount and not more. If there's no purpose or it oversteps it, cut it out. (keeping a stubborn client happy is another valid but less honourable purpose...) – user56reinstatemonica8 Aug 4 '14 at 16:58
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    The "techno goo" actually has function as well, Ryan. It pulls the eye back to the top left corner of the ad, causing the eye to linger longer on the page. Circles pull the up and to the right (common "happy" movement). Then the insert with the eye takes the reader back to the left of the page to start reading again. – Scott Aug 4 '14 at 18:14
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+500

In design, this is often viewed as unnecessary ornamentation.

  1. Is it necessary?
  2. No?
  3. Then it's unnecessary.

Additional elements should only be added with a purpose. To draw the viewers attention, to make them feel a certain way, to create a composition that makes the information more easily readable, etc. and should never be an end in itself.

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    Thanks. Could you expand on what techniques can help determine when there is no further purpose? – Ryan Aug 4 '14 at 14:29
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    What techniques are there to determine purpose? If you use an element with a purpose then it has a purpose. It might not work as intended but it certainly has one. – KMSTR Aug 5 '14 at 6:33
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First off: I can only speak for print and general cases, for I have zilch experience with video. Bear with me.

I don't think there's hard and fast rules to determine the 'right' amount of fluff. Left-brainers will hate me, but I guess it's one of those things that just has to 'feel' right without being quantifiable.

Moreover, there's other factors at work, most importantly the quality of the fluff. Although I agree that the ASIS example you give is over-designed, it's not overly busy in my eyes. Most of it serves the purpose of selling me that this is a convention with lots of different hi-tech subjects. Lots of fluff, but it's well-designed and thus does not strike me as 'wrong' or 'ugly'.

Too little fluff doesn't necessarily mean that things look amateur--it can just be minimalist. In the VinlyDecalStore example you give, it's the low quality of the fluff (too large and centered typography) that make it look amateur, rather than the amount of it. Same goes for the Kenwood ad. The style is rather minimalist, yet I feels somewhat amateur to me mainly because of the typography and rather simplistic composition. Changing a few thing, maybe making them fluffier, would help this ad in my opinion.

To get back to your question: KMSTR's 'if it doesn't have a function, take it away' is a very good rule of thumb. The other tool is your designer gut.

Be warned that lots of things may actually serve a function even if they look like fluff. Functions like 'guide the eye', 'catch interest', 'titillate', or similar are still functions, and elements fulfilling them have a right to stay.

  • Great answer! Just wanted to add that I wouldn't call the Kenwood ad minimalist in any way or form. Minimalism is about stripping the expression of something to its bare essentials, to only those elements that strongly communicate something to the viewer. The Kenwood ad may have little actual "fluff" but it still isn't minimalist. Why? Because there are a bunch of informative elements that don't really need to be there. That combined with as you say, bad composition and typography, creates something that is simply not very well designed nor minimalist. Ironically, neither is this comment. – gburning Aug 5 '14 at 22:37
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I'd like to add a Historical answer to this question.

In the early days fluff was a solution for a problem. For example in architecture the plastering was invented in order to hide cracks in walls. This became an artform itself and when the technique was good enough and plastering was no longer necessary, plastering became fluff.

  • Therefore fluff is the unnecessary

During industrialisation and mass-production ornaments became fluff because they were added artificialy an not necessary for the product.

  • Therefore fluff is artificial

The most extreme position against fluff came on the pamphlet «Ornament und Verbrechen» by Adolf Loos in 1908 (Ornament and Crime).

I can't find the English translation right now, but the basic statement is this:

When the craftsman behind a product is missing, the ornaments are a crime because they fake the hand-made origin which is not there in an industrial product. Therefore the product behaves like a thing from the past, and that is a crime.

  • So in this context fluff is a thing from the past and isn't "real" because a machine fakes craftsmanship.

For example look at all those retro Graphic-Designs (very widespread in fanart).

Back to your examples.

  • The asis ad is perfectly fine because it's visual appearance resembles a very conservative, serious and technical look wich you can expect when a Army general has a keynote. Asthetically it's very ugly, but ugliness is okay when it serves the purpose.
  • The Kenwood ad is totaly fluff-free. It uses a subtle reflection which is a very popular style element among electronic device manufactures because it's linked with trendy apple products.
  • The Daily show is total overload. But thats perfectly okay. Why? Because it's a satire - fake news-show which does a persiflage of real news-shows which have an insane amount of visual overload.
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The key to "fluff" is as others have said, not to have any. Things should serve a purpose. But the question asks for ways to determine this, and none of the answers have really addressed this.

There are a number of methods to do this but the main one you'll use as a designer is the brief, and your own take on that brief.

A lot of people are saying, remove all fluff or remove anything without a point. This is a really bad way to approach design. Form follows function as user56845 mentions in comment is correct.

Again, approach it from the brief. Let's take the ASIS advertisement:

  1. Reinforce the brand identity
  2. Show is about progress in the security sector
  3. Most of the technology displayed is video surveillance, facial recognition, biometrics, and IT security

Once you look at it this way, the fluff can quickly be analyzed --- is each point met?

Logo of a sphere and made up of smaller spheres === The brand identity is thus reinforced on the bottom right and the top left. The choice of blue and purple overtones is also used throughout along with a complimentary sans-serif font.

Show is about progress in the security sector === The overall layout can be seen as a camera. The circles on top left is the lens with the rounded rectangles becoming the aperture and focus and whatnot. The rectangular squares can also be seen as video surveillance monitors. The use of perspective helps reinforce the idea of progress and forward-thinking.

The technology on displayed === This began with the previous piece and continues with the small photos each showing a key feature. Laid out to lead your eye forward to again show progress and forward-thinking. The progress is then finalized to really drive the point with the two white boxes beneath the photos.

Additionally, as Scott mentioned in comments the general layout helps to create a circle to keep the reader's eye on the advertisement longer. A good designer, especially on a full page ad, will definitely consider things like this.

Really every brief should include stuff like

  • Does it attract the reader's eye?
  • Is all of the information legible?
  • Are the most important points the most visible on the hierarchy?

What's the point?

That you shouldn't look at it as "remove the fluff" or "remove the excess" or "subtract the eyesore." You should look at it as a set of ideas and points. Go through each one and ask yourself, is this point clear? If not then how can I visually represent it?

Like KMSTR said, is it important? No? Then remove it. The way to know this, in my opinion, is through your brief. Vague terms like "conservative" really aren't very good justifications.


On the other hand the Kenwood Ad, it looks a bit amateurish because it probably didn't have a strong brief. It shows small and I guess the idea was leave the rest empty to emphasize how small it is. But there's really nothing that helps visually say "security" or "Kenwood" or "5 mile range" or anything else really. They probably could've done more with their ad to keep the eye's attention without sacrificing legibility. You have to look pretty close, and really think about it to realize just how small it is and how small a credit card is.

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By "fluff" do you mean "stuff nobody cares about looking at"? If so, the right amount is zero.

"Colin Powell will be in Atlanta and you might get to talk to him." - Vs - "Look at Gigantic Eye with circles." How much does Gigantic Eye charge to give a keynote? Is she pulling in Hillary Clinton money?

Anything in your advertisement that has no point you should take out. But the point is for people who matter to see your ad. They put girls in bikinis in beer ads. It's not fluff because it's what the people that are buying beer want to look at.

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I'm going to answer more based on experience here, in saying that fluff is not always a bad thing. As Scott said in his comment, any good fluff will be there to be serving a purpose, and thus be no fluff at all.

But mostly, even the pseudo-minimalist designs, such as the Kenwood ad, do have fluff (notice the reflection on the base of the radio). But that serves the purpose in that you get a sense that there is a surface, on which the credit-card and the radio are kept to be compared.

There has been no actual formula, or measure, which has dawned upon me on or come across my eyes, which can help me decide what is too much.

The approach I take in these scenarios is mostly just heuristics. First, gather all the necessary info you need in your design. Once you are done, design multiple prototypes from scratch, each a different design, each having it's own fluff. At the end, compare those, some will be garish, some will sparse, some will come out just right. You'll also get to evaluate what kind of fluff works and what doesn't.

If I'm out of time, what I do is design the most embellished thing I can think of (esp. if the client is sitting next to me and meddling), and then once I'm done, I take a step back, let the grossness of it sink into the client's eyes (hopefully :P) and then I say that I'll do some adjustments to make it even better. Then start removing the things which seem out-of-place, or not sitting well with the subject, or obstructing readability, etc. I Keep subtracting or nudging till I feel that there is nothing more I can do (in the limited time I have). And that's that. If the client is still unhappy, I nudge an object 1px up, and then 1px down, say I've done the necessary adjustments, and surprisingly all of them have felt satisfied. Maybe it's just the illusion of control they think they have which makes them happy... but I digress...

So, to determine what is the right amount of fluff:

  1. Determine whether you are unhappy with your design. If not, you are done!
  2. Subtract the eyesore.
  3. Goto Step 1.

For minimalist designs, just keep in mind that don't make it cryptic, the necessary info should always be there. And give lots of space for the minimalism to sink in

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There is no universal right amount of fluff. The amount of fluff that looks right in design A might be quite peculiar in design B. Lack or abundance of fluff can be intentional design choices. All levels of fluff are used. It is impossible to say if the designer succeeded in applying the right amount of fluff without knowing her intentions.

  • Some creative, bright and original designers love, like and adore fluff. It's their pride and believe that fluff contributes to great, outstanding, smart and striking design.

  • Other designers qualify fluff as redundant.

Although fluff looks useless, it isn't. Fluff is in the shape, pattern, rhythm color, white space and counter shape corner of a design palette. Like all these elements fluff can give direction, rest, unbalance, harmony, contrast, focus, or distract. Fluff is underestimated for it's distinguishable properties.

Use fluff to your advantage.

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One way way of solving this is to view lack of fluff as a part of the modern era and especially the functionalist movement.

You can determine how much fluff you should add by looking at the product and guessing which year it was invented, walkie-talkie was invented by Alfred J. Gross between 1934-1941 and is therefor a very modern product while the event "Seeing tomorrow" looks in to the future – many years from of the 1940s.

  • I'm not sure I understand even a little. Could you explain how you would implement this equation you've come up with on a real piece of design? – Ryan Aug 4 '14 at 16:53
  • Sorry that was a bad joke, I can not solve exactly much fluff you should add or quantify how modernistic a design should be but I want to add to the discussion that fluffy design and non fluffy design is connected to functionalism. – Johan Aug 4 '14 at 16:58

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