October 3, 2006

Why is Simple so Difficult?

Simple websites are easy to use, easy to understand, nice to look at. In practice, websites are either unusable or ugly and in general filled with too many complicated words. Why do designers have such a hard time to keep it simple?

Simplicity as a result of a creative process is “the ultimate sophistication”, as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) said. Achieving simplicity is a difficult task not only in web-design but in every discipline (art, business, sports, science…), yet simplicity for websites is a particular challenge as paper derived graphic design and usability on one side, marketing language and user expectations on the other side are in constant struggle with each-other.

Graphic Design vs Usability

First of all, HTML and its table structure was not made to display graphics. It was made for text only. So by it’s technological nature the Internet was against designers.

There is an unarticulated war currently raging among those who make web sites. (…) This war is between usability experts and graphic designers. Curt Cloninger, A List Apart
Flash doesn’t solve this problem, it creates new problems. Flash is an alternative technology that is hard to use, hard to optimise for search engines, hard to administrate and even harder to combine with current components. Designers like flash, users don’t. However, no technology is bad as such. Of course, flash can be very useful if used intelligently.

Things got better since table-less CSS. Things got better since websites are made in table-less CSS though, as CSS is made for and by friends of typography and graphic design. The conflict design and usability is not just a technical one.

Some usability rules for webdesigners

Web-designers are confronted with a set of rules that websites have to follow in order to work, such as: – Links have to be recognizable either through being underlined or blue or super obvious – Logos should be placed in the upper left corner – Fonts should be big and scalable – Few pictures is better than many pictures – Few fragmented text works better than text-blocks – No columns for text, as websites scroll

Branding vs. Usability

The usability rules above lead to design rules that are different and in many ways stricter than the rules with paper based design. And, in many of those ways corporate design manuals clashed with these rules. Corporate identity was and often is still made by senior (old) designers that are not familiar with design on the web. Thus an important part of a corporate design is often missing and then poorly adapted from paper based design guidelines.

Branding vs Usability = Identity vs. Conformity

The conflict between branding and usability, is also a conflict between identity and conformity. Strong identities are first of all: different, recognizable, bold, successful websites tend to uniformity. Successful websites, however manage to create identity through their interface.

Simplicity as Unity of Conflicting Parameters

To create a unity between those principles is a particularly difficult task. On the other hand, brand experience online is essentially defined by the ease of use. If using a website is without problems, the user has a good brand experience. If on top the website is consistent with corporate design, you are right there. So basically, if web identity is part of the core identity development, there should be no conflict between branding and usability. Of course, whoever develops the on- and offline identity has to be aware of the characteristics of interactive media. In one word: Online identity is not a question of how big a logo is or where it is placed (this is almost a given), it is more a question of who you are and what you say, it is more a question of what words, what pictures do you use, than where you place them. And quite honestly, this is a measure stone for any corporate identity – on as well as offline.

New Design Rules

Creative people don’t like to be censored, yet few regulations incite more creativity than censorship. Since 1994, and more-so since we can use table-less CSS, web-design has developed significantly. It is currently establishing its own set of graphic rules, and insights such as:

  1. Work with light, not with layers of color.
  2. Set up a dynamic visual hierarchy that works vertically and is instantly understood
  3. Define fonts so they work with poor rendering as well as with good rendering

Talktalk vs. clarity

Websites should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler, in order to achieve maximum effect with minimum means. The copy writer has to be able to write whatever the marketing department tells him to write in clear simple words. The practice of simplicity is his daily bread. This clashes with the all too often empty overly wordy corporate blabla, but here again, websites are a healthy remedy of old practices. Successful websites are funny. And the reason is: Humor is the strongest weapon of communication.

With customers getting smarter and smarter (also through the Internet), and time getting sparce and sparcer due to the tremendous acceleration of things – you absolutely need the strongest communication to make yourself heard. The strongest communication is earnest, straightforward and humorous.

Paper Wants Grey Noise, the Screen Doesn’t

Paper brochures are expected to be filled with text, so copywriters write and write more or less blind text. As a result, nobody reads them. And not just brochures, fashion magazines, newspapers are full with blind text, TVs implode with their preposterous nonsense. They do not care for the attention of the consumer, all they seem to care is to fill the world with deadly grey noise.

Struggle for every word: Websites basically have to struggle for every word, as with ever word that you write too much, you might loose your reader. Yet if you stay simple without oversimplifying or being sensational (works only for the dumb audience), your chances to keep the reader are considerably high.

Simplicity is not a given: Of course, simplicity is not a given, it is the fruit of continuous, concentrated, diligent work. Only who knows what he is doing is able to do it simply. There is no recipe or anything such as an ideal website. But if you know what you are doing as a designer, copywriter, business strategist, you are mainly dong one thing: You are reducing things to their essence. Designers have a hard time to keep it simple, because simplicity is not something that is there from the beginning, it has to be elaborated.

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