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.