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The Idea of Simplicity


Written by Eric

I’m sure all of you who have visited my portfolio will understand exactly where I’m coming from…but for those who haven’t, I’m sure you have heard of the idea of KISS (Keep it simple stupid). While developing my design skills I came across this brand of website design, minimalism or the art of keeping is simple. In my mind, the first person I think of when I think simple, is Steve Jobs. It’s no coincidence that while I was watching an old clip of TED (A very cool conference everyone should tune into), David Pogue, who was talking about simplicity in technology, brought up Apple, and specifically Steve Jobs, no more than at least four times. And while it seemed like an Apple plug at times, he also recognizes the fact that other companies out there do product quite simple and effective tools at well (Microsoft included).

Why Keep it Simple?

The idea of keeping it simple has always existed. However, only recently is it really obvious to see where designers and developers fail to keep to simple, especially in technology. So the question now, is why keep it simple? Well, the more complicated a program is for example, generally the harder it is to use. For a real life example, take a look at any 3D modeling or editing software…they’re some of the most complicated piece of equipment and it’s a wonder to me for anyone to actually be able to easily manipulate and get the software to create something they want.

You will always want a simpler execution because it allows your site to work for a broader audience

And so, generally you want to keep your stuff simple because it’ll make your software (or anything else for that matter) easier to use, leaner (quicker to start-up in the case of software), and more pleasant to deal with. The most important factor in creating anything, is the GUI or the interface your customers will have to deal with. Generally, a more complicated website or software is automatically clustered with menu bars and tons of options which most users won’t ever touch. The less features you have, the less cluttered your GUI will be right off the bat; of course, there are exceptions to this rule as well (iRiver comes to mind). In the case of web design, you will always want a simpler execution because it allows your site to work for a broader audience. You never want to lock in your site’s audience to a select few, because than how can you gain any traffic and exposure?

So, How to Keep it Simple?

To do almost anything, it takes more than 2 or 3 clicks period. Even when trying to use shortcuts on the start menu

Well, that’s the hard part. There are so many examples out there showing bad design and utterly horrible interface decisions. For example, a common problem a lot of people run into a lot is with Windows XP or Vista. Those OSes aren’t designed with the user as the first priority, but of course that isn’t all Microsoft’s fault (after all XP/Vista is successful because it works with 99.99% of software out there, and is backwards compatible). To do almost anything, it takes more than 2 or 3 clicks period. Even when trying to use shortcuts on the start menu. On the flip side, the greatest feature of OSX is the ability for anyone to access any part of the OS in basically one click. You see, that’s simplicity in action…and it can make or break an entire product (or OS in this case).

Some other examples I can think of include the iPod, which sacrifices feature in order to appear simple. Even the design follows suit, with only a scroll wheel device, and a very simplistic GUI. The interface is basically all text (and while I don’t really like it at all, since it could be implemented much better), it works right off the bat without any lag, no dependence on graphically intense stuff unlike the old Portable Media Center players (which didn’t work all that badly).

Another similar example is the Zune 2. Microsoft obviously saw the success of the iPod and came up with what I think is a better, friendlier interface. Instead of a scroll wheel or just a four directional d-pad (neither of which I really like using), they have a touch “sensitive” pad thingy. It works the same way as a d-pad (and has the ability to click as well), it works more naturally allowing you to “scroll” through large lists of songs. In addition, they revamped the old Portable Media Center GUI, turning into just text which works amazingly better. It’s faster, slicker, and in my opinion works much better than the iPod GUI.

Keep it simple no matter what. Nothing has to be complicated

In terms of on the web, the secret is to keep your main menu bar simple, with fewer than six items. And if you have to have more items, to use drop down sub menus to save space, and to make it easier to see the hierarchies of the menu. Elsewise, the idea is to use a few colors as possible, usually only 2 to 3 “primary” colors as well. In addition, for the fonts you should only use 1 or 2 or maybe 3 if you really have to. Finally, the key to any good website is to have a good layout or structure. A really great example of simple web design (other than my own site haha) is the blog of Jeff Croft. You’ll notice how his site is basically all text, not a single wasted pixel, and just how effective that combo is. To see even bigger examples, take a look at the new redesigned Microsoft homepage as well. Anyone remember the old version? You’ll see a HUGE difference right away in exactly what were talking about, they did away from the swaths and swaths of menus everywhere. Simplified the color schemes and went a little Web 2.0 as well.

And so…here’s my tip for today, keep it simple no matter what. Nothing has to be complicated, after all in order to appeal to the masses you need to simplify the process and the interactions between your product and them (in a way your “dumbing it down just a bit”). In your next project, keep ideal in mind and it just might it that much better.

Eric Huang


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