The Case For Simplicity

Spinning logos. Graphic navigation buttons.

Columns From: 1/3/2007 Modern Machine Shop, ,

Spinning logos. Graphic navigation buttons. Flash screens with hip yuppies huddled around a computer screen, pointing. Pull-down menus. Pop-up windows. Frames.

These are just a few examples of what we all encounter on Web sites these days. They are today’s equivalent of voice mail purgatory.

How happy are you to encounter these speed bumps that pepper your paths to answers? How pleased are you to sit and marvel at someone’s supercilious design at the expense of your productivity?

And yet, these are the things many of us discuss first when designing Web sites to support our businesses. “What should it look like?” trumps “What should it do?” And that’s wrong.

Look at the designs of the Web’s most successful information sites—Google, Craig’s List (www.craigslist.com), Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), YouTube (www.youtube.com)—and you’ll find a level of simplicity that flies in the face of the overwhelming online convention that "sizzle matches steak." How is it that these wildly popular businesses manage to succeed without overt glitz and glamour?

It’s functionality. It’s making it simple to access complex collections of information or to perform valuable tasks. Two other sites, eBay and Yahoo! were built upon the simplest of designs and expanded gradually, ONLY after they’d built their communities to stratospheric levels.

Odds are you don’t care. You’ll likely continue to follow your instincts that say heavy graphics, lots of exclamation points and animations are the answer, because you saw it on your kid’s MySpace page, an insurance company’s site, someone’s brochure, or some other traditional media.

But if you do care or you are interested in doing what works online rather than what you think works, you’d do well to read “The Laws Of Simplicity” by John Maeda, a professor at M.I.T. and a recognized authority on design simplicity. It will do more than help you see your Web site differently—you will recognize ways that simplifying aspects of your business and life can lead to improvements.

As a warning of sorts, let me say that this book speaks in general terms, and it can be a bit cumbersome. The author uses analogies, abbreviations that seem trite on the surface, and “laws” or “keys” to make points throughout. Some might say it resembles this column in those respects. But taking the time to read this book can help in unexpected ways, if you'll take the time.

In the end, simplicity trumps clutter —online, and in the real world.

For more, visit the author’s Blog at www.lawsofsimplicity.com.

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