Designers constantly face the challenge to visually organise, edit and present complex amounts of information in a simple way. But what does simplicity mean in this context? How is it achieved? Is it always the best solution?
We live in a highly visual environment, surrounded by overlapping signs competing for our attention. Throughout the day we decipher the signs around us, we filter the information, and have to make constant choices. This selection process can happen while browsing the Internet, reading a newspaper, visiting a museum, buying a product…or any other situation where we are interacting with a media platform.
In any of those situations, we usually seek for the simplest interaction possible: we want to access the content we are looking for as quickly and easily as possible. According to the Brand Simplicity Index, an annual survey conducted by the branding agency Siegel+Gale, 70% of consumers are more likely to recommend a brand if it provides simpler experiences and communications. In fact, 38% are even willing to pay more for those simpler experiences. (Siegel+Gale, Brand Simplicity Index 2014)
Designers have a fundamental role in improving our interactions with content. They can decide the amount of visual cues needed in order for us to have the most intuitive journey possible… whatever that journey may be. Whether I’m looking for the finance section in the daily paper or booking my next holiday online, there is a specific vocabulary in the platform that can be used to make my own experience simpler.
But how tangible is that simplicity? Apple or Google are two standard analogies used to describe simplicity in a visual way. Let’s say a client approaches a design agency asking for his website to look like Google or his product packaging to look like Apple, saying that ‘we want to make our website/products look simpler’. But how could their visual simplicity work in the same way for a client with a different audience or a different product?
User-centred design has taught us that less isn’t always more. More specifically, less doesn’t necessarily mean simple. Several designers have approached this difference between simple and simplistic over the years. John Maeda, in his book “Laws of Simplicity”, creates a set of Ten Laws, his final law is: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful”. (John Maeda, Laws of Simplicity 2005) A definition that could have stemmed from Dieter Rams’ words in 1980: “My goal is to omit everything superfluous so that the essential is shown to best possible advantage” (Dieter Rams, 1980) Or, as Milton Glaser puts it, “Just enough is more”. (Milton Glaser, Ten Things I Have Learned, 2010)
Returning to my “benchmarking” example, the visual bareness of Google’s homepage comes from the fact that there is only one function that needs to be addressed there: a search bar where we can type search terms. A dashboard on an online banking website could never look like that, otherwise most of its functionalities would have to be sacrificed.
The elegance of Apple’s minimal packaging will not work with a product that doesn’t share the same attention to detail in manufacturing. It might not even resonate with an audience that is, for example, more focused on the amount of visible features than the simplicity of the interface.
In my experience working as a designer, I came across examples of this huge disparity between the perception of the client of how simple their product should be and how simple it should actually be. Standard websites can become apps, extensive booklets can become emails.
This happens when the client doesn’t have a clear profile of who is going to use their product and the amount of different things that the user needs to do with what they’re selling.
Once we establish who the user is, it’s much easier for designers to think how much they can simplify in order to enhance his experience. That applies both to the functionalities that are highlighted and to the visual language applied. If I was designing a website for an elderly audience, I would probably avoid using flat abstract icons if I could represent those ideas with words. If I was designing a publication for a very young audience, I would probably just have to visually hint social media platforms. Both the user’s needs for a specific platform and his visual literacy are important to consider.
The biggest challenge for the designer is when the media platform is used by a very heterogeneous range of people: some might use it to complete just one task, while others might use it to its full extent. Having all the options available can make the first users feel lost among visual clutter, while over-simplifying it may frustrate the second users, who will need to uncover some of the functions.
The more common solution for this challenge is allow the user to decide how simple he wants the platform to be, filtering the unwanted functions and highlighting the favourite ones. This can also be very rewarding for the user, to be involved in the process of tailoring and customising how simple his interaction with the product can be.
Simply put, simple for one isn’t simple for everyone. Designers do have a fundamental task curating any complex data in a way that makes it as easy as possible for the audience to use and assimilate. But first and foremost, they need to know who that audience is. When they answer that question, they will know which visual language to use, and which way to communicate simply.
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