Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Simple Designs - a myth or a reality?

At times, I use the white board at my workstation to scribble interesting quotes that appeal to me. A few weeks ago, I wrote this one:

"There are two ways of constructing a software design. One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies. And the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. (Charles Hoare)."

The quote led to an interesting discussion amongst the ones who read it. The curious question was – what is ‘simple’ design. I pondered for a while. I knew that simplicity was far complex than I thought. I wanted to understand what is means to have simplicity in content design, media design, functional design, web design, and any other design that we ought to do! So I started my journey to explore what is simple design…here is what I found on my way. An interesting definition.

This is an excerpt taken from an article titled, “Keep it simple, stupid!” by Pär Almqvist.

A Definition of Simplicity
What is simplicity? It could be defined as "the absence of unnecessary elements," or even shorter "the essence." Simplicity doesn't equal boring. Simplicity doesn't equal shallow. Simplicity is especially important when designing information- and media-rich interfaces. Simplicity isn't a design style, it's a perspective on design, an approach which often creates the most beautiful and the most usable results. A common mistake is to think that obtaining simplicity is a matter of reduction, of reducing something which is more complete than the "simple" end result. On the contrary, simplicity requires serious thought and effort. As I wrote in my article
Fragments of time; "A modern paradox is that it's simpler to create complex interfaces because it's so complex to simplify them."

How to Obtain Simplicity
Simplicity isn't easy to obtain. I have, however, roughly devised a formula that lays the foundation for simplicity. Albert Einstein said; "If A is to succeed in life, then A = x + y + z. Work is x, y is play and z is to listen.
"A functioning formula for simplicity (where A equals simplicity) could be A = x + y + z. x is good research and prototyping, y is play and z is the reduction of unnecessary elements.

In the above definition, the author reiterates that simplicity requires thought and effort. Another example to support this definition is here, where the author (Nika Smith) discusses the evolution of Gmail chat and specifically how the Gmail chat window was designed.

The author reiterates, “Often, the features we launch seem so simple that you might think they're the result of blatantly obvious design decisions. In fact, every feature is subjected to a healthy dose of scrutiny within the Gmail team, and usually that includes rapidly iterating on designs by collecting user feedback, learning what works and what doesn't, and improving on our work based on this knowledge.”

From what I gather, I believe simple designs:-
- appear intuitive and easy to make - but they take time to build
- involve multiple iterations of review and feedback
- are meant for the purpose (meet requirements)
- are naturally usable
- have more impact because they have less distractions

So, what does simplicity mean to you in the context of design?

Are simple designs better than complex ones? Do our users appreciate simplicity? Is simplicity the need and the reality of the day?


Is simplicity simply an overrated aspect of design? Does simple sell or do our users want more features? Is simplicity a myth?

What do you think?


Saumi said...

Submitted on 2008/07/24 at 7:38pm

I think simplicity is a life style necessity in our times.

In the media-intensive world of today, we are bombarded with informations that we may or may not need. It takes a considerable bandwidth for us to weed through the clutter to get to the crux. That leaves us with very little bandwidth to explore what we are really looking for or seeking.

If we want any kind of messaging to be effective, then we have to facilitate ease of availability, use, and understanding for our audience. And that is where a SIMPLE design plays a big role.

That’s my two cents on simplicity — a lifestyle need in our times.

Taruna Goel on January 8, 2010 at 1:58 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/07/25 at 9:43am

Thanks for your comment Saumi! Couldn’t agree with you more. Infact, the teachings of Zen highlight that to move towards simple living - we should try to do ‘less’ in a day! Taking that thought to our designs, the courses and interfaces that we make, may be need to start looking at doing less and generating the same or even more impact!

Hannah said...

Submitted on 2008/07/30 at 10:49am

Can’t agree more with your final bulleted list of the essence of simplicity. Certainly, simplicity wins hands down in any situation. However, making complex ideas simple requires a lot of hardwork and thinking, which incidentally is very hard to come across:-)

Enjoyed your writeup.

Taruna Goel on January 8, 2010 at 1:59 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/07/30 at 12:44pm

Thanks for sharing your view Hannah!

Sandipan said...

Submitted on 2008/08/29 at 5:15pm

I think if the designer can clearly illustrate to others about what he/she wants to do, and how to do it, or in other words, any one other than the designer can clearly understand the design without any additional prompting by the designer, that design is a simple one! And when the vision is not clear, the design takes a complex shape, where its hard to understand for evryone, including the designer.

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