Designed simplicity

We live in a complicated world, but there are people out there working to make it easier. These are the designers and engineers of the world, honing their skills and experience to make things run smoother. Let’s face it, there are too many decisions, choices, options, menus — or, equally as bad — a complete lack of choice. ‘Don’t make me think’ was coined by Steve Krug to describe efficient and effective website navigation and content, but it applies to almost everything — except the stuff we choose to help us contemplate the world. We want the novel we’re about to read, the next film we see, and pretty much any philosophy book — to make us think. Being made to think is a positive and a negative. When it’s mentally elevating and mind expanding it’s positive. When it’s cognitively draining and tiresome it’s the opposite.

Great design is about reducing problems down to their essence and addressing those needs. Bad design gets in the way of solving that same problem. With design, everything that requires a solution is a problem — something that needs to be worked out during the development process.

The success of any design is always be a matter of opinion. Key indicators are usually quantitative things like market share and sales numbers. Qualitative values, such as, the experience of the solution, as it were, includes things like the joy of ownership and the perceived value a product or service — how it makes us feel. Cumbersome, difficult to figure out designs, are frustrating; but seamless solutions that provide apparently effortless service are a pleasure. Simplifying complicated problems down tends to produce more satisfying results, but it can lead to a false elegance where less is always more.

There comes a point when you do need features and content to provide practical functionality. This is the issue with minimalism, less is inherently seen as better — to the point of dogma — even if it impinges on the user experience, and practical usefulness. A key parameter to judge the success of a design is how much pleasure it gives the user. Things that are a joy to own and satisfy our practical needs must be viewed as a success, but it also goes that if someone wants a minimalistic product, that — in their opinion — is also a success. Whatever the criteria of judgement that goes into the perceived success or failure of a design, it includes a whole bunch of parameters that include purposefulness and aesthetics. It’s the designers job (and the marketing department) to reduce the snags — the inherent frustrations and irritations surrounding a product or service.

The ‘purist’ solution is to cut out as many variables as possible, not necessarily because it brings the benefits of simplification, but for aesthetic reasons — as a matter of taste. Minimalism can hide things away from immediate view, only to store them in a way that makes finding them slow and frustrating. Removing tactile buttons and dials from cameras and replacing them with complex software menus that are cumbersome to navigate. Moving kitchen appliances into special storage cupboards to maintain the ‘integrity’ of a minimalist space removes the complexity from plain sight, but brushes it under the carpet, so to speak: any true craftsman knows that the dust is still there.

Designed simplicity is a pragmatic form of minimalist inspired thinking. It’s okay to leave something on the kitchen counter if you use it every day. After all, isn’t it more ‘honest’ to have something where you need it, and allow it to become a part of our environment? Why hide something that is an undeniable part of our life? With cameras, photographers need to control the aperture, shutter speed and ISO — settings we hope to use intuitively, even in poor light, sometimes without looking. Obviously, we don’t want dozens of buttons, all the same, with unfathomable labels like: d1 d2 d3 d4 d5, but sometimes we do need an appropriate level of complexity. It must be arranged properly though. Different groups of people need different levels of control, flexibility, and sophistication, all of which alters the overall complexity. Designed simplicity is deciding how much choice to give the user. It’s about getting the right balance for your audience — a balance that’s easy to misjudge.

Categories Culture

Adrian Graham blogs and writes fiction. He’s studying for an MA in Creative Writing.