From the Bloggle Archives, circa March, 2002. I wrote this as an antidote to what struck me as a surge in misplaced web design ideals; ideals that, in fact, turned out to be the beginning of ‘Web 2.0,’ for all that’s worth. I think it’s as relevant today as it was six years ago…
The Web is not Walden Pond… and attempts to make it so through increasingly stark simplicity are well-intentioned, but badly aimed.
Simplicity often belies the truth. The truth if the web is that it is the most mind-boggling array of unstructured information that has ever been. And it’s growing exponentially, and it will not stop. It is increasingly the de facto body of reference for all of us. It will inexorably be the sum total of explicit knowledge on our planet. How do you simplify that? By making it “…as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
As simple as possible…
Consider the works of Matisse and Picasso. Not your style? Try Keith Haring. Simplicity is alluring. A line-drawing can evoke far more than it actually reveals, by distilling the subject to its most essential form. It’s not coincidental that great art illustrates this… there is more than a little art to conveying the very essence of something.
…but not simpler.
Mere simplicity can dilute meaning. Consider Starbucks coffee stamps… at-a-glance labels that would tell you what the coffee in the bag is all about. Starbucks coffees are — very simply — Bold, Mild or Smooth. Does it really suffice to say that Sumatra, an earthy, dry-processed Indonesian coffee with loads of body and a caramelly finish is bold? Or smooth? It’s both, and then some, isn’t it?
On the other hand, consider Google. Google’s apparent simplicity belies the complexity that lurks behind its interface… it is arguably the web’s largest, most relevant and most capable search engine. Would Google be so effective if not for its extraordinary clarity of purpose?
Design — be it product design or interface design — can be simplified to the extent that it is no longer meaningful, or useful. Simple can be obscure. Simple doesn’t scale. Simplicity does not make a very good design goal. Instead, simplicity is most effective as a method to achieve a different design goal… clarity.