Simplicity in design

I recently bought a copy of Tal Ronnen’s new cookbook The Conscious Cook. It looks as though it has a lot of nice recipes, but as they are too complicated for everyday meals, I haven’t made anything from it yet. But, upon browsing it, I was immediately struck by its bold graphic design.

There has been a recent trend in design toward simplicity. I think this is largely attributable to the success of Google. If we look back to the early days of the Internet, we recall having several different search engines to choose from, such as Yahoo!, Excite, AltaVista, and Lycos. All these search engines were full of content and information on the front page; users could select a category or subcategory and look at selected pages on a specific topic, and one could search within a subcategory. Back then, that was the way all the search engines looked. It seemed like such a great idea to give users instant access to all sorts of content that might be relevant.

Google was revolutionary in that it didn’t offer any of these options. The main Google page consisted of a search box and two buttons. In spite of the lack of choice, Google rapidly became the most successful search engine. I don’t think its search results offer considerable advantages over those of other engines. But to most users, it had the advantage of being far less intimidating, offering only exactly what the user needs.

Google’s design has two key advantages over those of earlier search engines. The first is the lack of needlessly complicating options, so that the user is not confused or intimidated by all the options. The second is that it just looks less cluttered. Most people seem to think that it is easier to work at an uncluttered desk than at a cluttered one (although fewer of us have sufficient discipline to keep our desks uncluttered), and the same applies to web design: it’s easier to work with an uncluttered website than with a cluttered one.

Another company that has made the uncluttered style its trademark is IKEA. Their furniture doesn’t have any extra engravings or niceties that furniture at fancier stores does, but somehow, IKEA furniture has attracted the attention of nearly everyone. Even people like my grandmother, who has great interest and taste in fine aesthetics in art, have been converted to the IKEA aesthetic in furniture. While part of the allure of IKEA is the low pricing (although certainly not the experience of shopping there, which is rather hideous), I don’t think that’s all of it. I think people really like the simplistic design that lends a mild and unobtrusive look to a room.

Another place I can see simplicity ruling is at chess tournaments. There are a variety of chess clocks that one can buy, but one type of clock clearly stands out as the favorite of the majority of chess players (including myself): the Chronos. This clock consists of a long frame with two digital displays, and only three buttons: one for each player to press to signify the end of eir move and to start the opposing side’s clock, and one more to turn the clock on. One cannot imagine a simpler-looking design. Others, such as the Saitek, have far more buttons than the Chronos, and roughly the same functionality. So, the Saitek clock looks much more complicated at a glance.

In fact, this is exactly the opposite of the truth. Setting the Chronos clock to the correct time control is a complex procedure, and many tournament players who own Chronos clocks are thoroughly unprepared to do so. Still, they look really nice, and the illusion of simplicity seems to be a more important factor when purchasing the clock than its ease of use.

This is the sort of thing that Donald Norman wrote a diatribe about, in his fantastic book The Design of Everyday Things. His feeling is that ease of use is the most important feature of a product, and one that is frequently sacrificed for aesthetic purposes. This leads users to buy fancy products that they are incapable of using. Design should, according to Norman, be done in such a way that a typical user can get the functionality ey needs easily. This means that there should probably be more buttons than are strictly necessary on an electronic device, but the sacrifice in aesthetics is more than compensated by the increased usability.

So, why does this not seem to apply to chess clocks? I don’t really know, but one guess is that we agree as a society that chess clocks are going to be fairly complicated devices, and the users have to learn how to do something tricky with them however they’re made, so why not completely sacrifice easy of use in favor of much greater aesthetics? Another guess is that, at a tournament, there are sure to be some very skilled Chronos users, so a typical tournament player can ask such a person how to set the clock correctly (and then promptly forget the procedure).

Finally, let’s return to where we started: with Tal Ronnen’s cookbook. The recipe lists aren’t done in a typical table of contents form. Rather, there is a list on the first page of each section listing the recipes using different fonts and sizes. On the pages with the individual recipes, the title is done in a variety of fonts with various words bolded and italicized. The photos sometimes feel as though they blend in with the page, acting as a kind of background. Most importantly, though, on every page is a lot of empty space, so the book feels very uncluttered. Clearly, the graphic design here is quite complex, but at a first glance, it looks quite simple. And that’s what matters.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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7 Responses to Simplicity in design

  1. amacfie says:

    One wonders whether the desire for simplicity along the lines of Google Search is mostly irrational or mostly rational. Is it just a form of instant gratification or is it the result of an unconscious argument that learning how to navigate around an application that looks complex will probably not end up being worth the time and effort?
    A friend of mine in interactive multimedia said that there was a rumor that the Wii was being marketed at baby-boomers because the controller was supposed to be as simple and familiar as a TV remote.
    So Norman is pushing for function over form? Well in the case of a chess clock’s time control these may compete, but in the case of Google Search, they don’t. It’s actually easier to search for things without navigation hanging all over the place. (Google has made it so that searching for any topic is possible with only one box and two buttons, no navigation required.)
    Function really should be preferred over form (agree?), but a lot of the time (interactive media) they can be almost the same thing.
    Simon: you seem to be missing some “th”s in your text here and previously

    • Simon says:

      Sure, some of the time functionality is correlated with form, but I think the opposite is more frequently true. Having lots of buttons and knobs and stuff like that tends not to look so nice, so if you care primarily about form, you’d want to minimize these. If you care about functionality, you’d want to have redundant ones.
      I’m not missing any “th”s; that’s intentional. They’re Spivak pronouns, a collection of gender-neutral third person singular pronouns. I’m trying to do my part to popularize them.

      • amacfie says:

        a book of his is sitting a few feet away. they’re good: short, and rememberable because of their derivation. just what we need. until they become popular, i prefer the male singular. well, “male”. there’s nothing wrong with one set of pronouns being understood to be both male _and/or_ gender-neutral.

        • Simon says:

          That’s no way to popularize something! When I use Spivak pronouns, other people sometimes become aware of their existence. When I use male pronouns as gender-neutral, I do absolutely nothing to disseminate information about Spivak pronouns. Furthermore, by using male pronouns as gender-neutral, I do a tiny part to support male dominance, an idea that I do not approve of. When other people do it, the impact is less than when I do, since other people know that I am both very concerned about discrimination issues and careful about my choice of words, far more than most other people.

          • amacfie says:

            To help everyone form eir/their/his/(his/her) opinion, please explain your view on the connection between pronouns and dominance.

            • Simon says:

              Sure. When a person uses the masculine pronoun as a default, ey is making an (admittedly subtle) statement that being male is the default or normal state. This is false.
              Also, keep in mind that by using carefully considered language that other people usually do not use, I am making people think a bit more about what messages I’m trying to send. From time to time, people ask me to explain why I chose to use some word over another, and that gives me an opportunity to explain my thoughts. That’s a good thing.

  2. good observation
    I think your observation is mostly true. I like simple things. I don’t like to think about things that I don’t really need to. I like to focus on what’s relevant. 🙂

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