Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Simplicity in Design

At times, I use the white board at my workstation to scribble interesting quotes that appeal to me. A few weeks ago, I wrote this one:

"There are two ways of constructing a software design. One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies. And the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. (Charles Hoare)."

The quote led to an interesting discussion amongst the ones who read it. The curious question was – what is ‘simple’ design. I pondered for a while. I knew that simplicity was far complex than I thought. I wanted to understand what is means to have simplicity in content design, media design, functional design, web design, and any other design that we ought to do! So I started my journey to explore what is simple design…here is what I found on my way. An interesting definition.

This is an excerpt taken from an article titled,
“Keep it simple, stupid!” by Pär Almqvist.

A Definition of Simplicity
"What is simplicity? It could be defined as "the absence of unnecessary elements," or even shorter "the essence." Simplicity doesn't equal boring. Simplicity doesn't equal shallow. Simplicity is especially important when designing information- and media-rich interfaces. Simplicity isn't a design style, it's a perspective on design, an approach which often creates the most beautiful and the most usable results. A common mistake is to think that obtaining simplicity is a matter of reduction, of reducing something which is more complete than the "simple" end result. On the contrary, simplicity requires serious thought and effort. As I wrote in my article
Fragments of time; "A modern paradox is that it's simpler to create complex interfaces because it's so complex to simplify them."

How to Obtain Simplicity
Simplicity isn't easy to obtain. I have, however, roughly devised a formula that lays the foundation for simplicity. Albert Einstein said; "If A is to succeed in life, then A = x + y + z. Work is x, y is play and z is to listen.
"A functioning formula for simplicity (where A equals simplicity) could be A = x + y + z. x is good research and prototyping, y is play and z is the reduction of unnecessary elements."

In the above definition, the author reiterates that simplicity requires thought and effort. Another example to support this definition is
here, where the author (Nika Smith) discusses the evolution of Gmail chat and specifically how the Gmail chat window was designed.

The author reiterates,
“Often, the features we launch seem so simple that you might think they're the result of blatantly obvious design decisions. In fact, every feature is subjected to a healthy dose of scrutiny within the Gmail team, and usually that includes rapidly iterating on designs by collecting user feedback, learning what works and what doesn't, and improving on our work based on this knowledge.”

From what I gathered, I believe simple designs:-
- appear intuitive and easy to make - but they take time to build
- involve multiple iterations of review and feedback
- are meant for the purpose (meet requirements)
- are naturally usable
- have more impact because they have less distractions

I hope to continue on this journey towards simple designs. I may have to infact start with my life first - as the teachings of Zen highlight - "try and do less each day" to make a move towards simplicity!


  1. Hey Taruna,

    Very well articulated. I guess complexity lies in the word "Simple" :).

    Bingo:) Congratulations!!!!!!!!!!


  2. Thanks for your comment Smriti! Good to have an audience in you...