Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Simplified Mind

Simplicity means getting to the point. Let’s do it.

No matter what else you have in your life, where you go, what you do, the web is a little different. Not different in kind so much, but in degree. Enough different that you have to change your thinking a little, but not past that.

Simplicity isn’t minimalism, scraping by with the bare bones, just because. Minimalism can be fun, and clean, and to the point, and so elegant it makes your teeth hurt. But minimalism can be an exercise in emptiness too, done for its own sake. And we’re not talking about that.

Another thing we’re not talking about: being simplistic. No stick figures. No limiting ourselves to words of one syllable. No sounding dumb. Simplicity is not that.

Try this: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Leonardo da Vinci said that. He wasn’t stupid. You know that. I know that. He knew that. Everyone knows that. But he praised simplicity. So maybe we should think about it.

You could say that simplicity is the absence of ornamentation, doodads, or pretense.

You could say.

If you like being negative.


Simplicity is about being positive. Negatives make good fences, for walling things off. Wall off a concept and then you can forget about it. That’s handy. That’s convenient. That’s clever.

In a way, that’s even clean.

But it isn’t productive.


If you are being negative, even in a constructive way, you are thinking about what you don’t want.

Think about that.

To think about what you don’t want is to be stuck to it. Like a big hairy creepy buzzing insect stuck on flypaper. Trapped. Held. Locked. Limited. Doomed.

Not productive.

So let’s go beyond that. Let’s get somewhere. Let’s think about what simplicity can do, what’s right about it.

For one thing, simplicity makes us think.

If we want to do something, and keep it simple, then we have to know exactly what we’re up to. Pare things down and we’re at the core. Once at the core we can decide if that’s really, really what we want. And if it is, then we put it in the display window and see who comes running up to buy it.

Simplicity is really about deciding on goals. Nobody can do everything, though lots keep trying. Try hard enough and you go out of business. Because no one can figure out what you’re up to.

Simplify and you have a chance. Not a guarantee but a chance. The reason? Because you’ve exposed the core. Because you are showing the essence. Because if you have a jewel you have it out of its case, unwrapped, sitting in the sun all sparkly.

When people see it they know what’s up.

Now on the web it’s all about information. There is no substance. That’s one thing that makes it hard. That’s one thing that makes all software hard -- it’s all in your head. Programmers spend their days creating imaginary machines, which is why development is tough. Trust me here, if you’ve never programmed for anyone else, you have no idea how weird it gets. Almost nobody can think abstractly at all and yet this work involves three, four, six, eight levels of abstraction, all fighting with each other.

Web sites too.

Web sites are software.

You aren’t selling anything, if you have a commercial site. Not really. Whether it’s products or services. You aren’t sharing substance. Not really.

Your business may be substantial, and have a reputation. Many satisfied customers may have bought your products or used your services. But a web site is only a few electrons sprayed onto a computer screen.

That’s as real as it gets.

We are dealing in illusions. Impressions. Vague wisps of current flowing to and fro.

Slippery things for human minds to deal with.

We need help.


There are several kinds of simplicity. The most obvious is in graphic design. This means how things look. The pictures. The colors. The type styles. The layout. One column, two columns, three, 18, whatever. That’s one thing.

Programming. Most people have no clue, and they shouldn’t. This is totally behind the scenes, and it takes an expert to do, but it should be simple too. This isn’t our final point though.

Usability is critical. And guess what? It’s also one of the most overlooked areas on the web. Think about that one. What are visitors to your site supposed to do?

OK, time’s up. They’re supposed to use it.

Usability is a whole separate specialty. Keep in mind that someone coming to your web site for the first time will give you four to six seconds to make an impression.


Pop quiz: how many second chances can you squeeze into four seconds?


But that’s still a little off target.

Here’s the simplicity bullseye: concept.

Bet you never expected that. Bet you thought that a nice, flashy design full of hot colors with plenty of pull down menus and twirly things might do it. Or if you’ve been around the block a few times, you were thinking of how people would actually use your site and end up making you rich.

But those aren’t it.

It’s the concept.

That’s where simplicity goes nuclear.

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint Exupéry. To the point. You can see his idea right away. Strip off the cruft, scrape away the barnacles right down to bare metal, and you have it. Everything else is byproduct.

That’s what you want. The concept.

You are exposing who you are and what you are about. No hiding. No wobbling. No waffling. No waste. Put your neck on the line, boldly. Win or lose, succeed or fail, you want it to be quick and decisive.

Simplicity enables that.

By hewing to simplicity you know what to leave out and what to put in. You know how much web site you have to build, and you know it’s going to be smaller. You focus intently on doing just what you need. Exactly what you need, and none of the rest.

You get done quicker. You get done cheaper. Your results are cleaner and easier to maintain.

Your message is clear and focused.

You meet your business needs. You serve customers.

That’s the point.




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