Process Leads to Simplicity

Anthony at UX Movement wrote an article that made me think quite a bit. I agree with some of his points and disagree with others. Let’s start from the top.

Anthony’s case goes like this: Clients/bosses/stakeholders almost always choose the simplest design direction presented to them. Knowing this, the designer should just produce a simple direction, thus saving countless time and making everyone rich. He uses the 37 Signals website as a case study to prove his point.

The problem is that this ignores the process to arrive at simplicity. If we could all just skip ahead to the most direct design we would. In the example he presents the simplest direction came early, but this is not always the case. He also does not deal with the possibility that multiple solutions, equally simple, might work for a project. There is no platonic ideal for a design. Saying ”just skip to the simple solution” ignores the fact that it is often a long and complex process to arrive at the simple solution to a design problem. There are some designers who, at times, seem to skip directly to the simplest solution. Paula Scher famously designed the logo for CitiBank in the first meeting. Aside from the decades of experience that Scher brings to bear, this is a remarkable story because it is just that, remarkable. The majority of projects are long, winding and periodically frustrating.

Wrangling the complexity inherent in difficult problems and boiling it down is what makes elegant solutions that are not anemic. That is a step you cannot leapfrog if you want the design to be effective. Jonny Ive described the process this way:

“Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and so complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”

—From Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, p. 343

I think that the 37 Signals example works well for Anthony’s case because they already had a very focused definition gained by hard-won experience for the designer to work with. If only all projects were so clear! Of course in retrospect the first idea was the best, but this is rare enough that they were probably smart to test it.

I do think that Anthony has some good points. Recognizing visual excess and unfocused direction in a design is something that is always better to do quickly. Having the courage to abandon ill-fated designs rather than fiddle with them is a laudable ability. By quickly shifting to promising design directions you give yourself more time to iterate, boil it down, simplify. Doing this can give you the confidence that all avenues have been explored. Just imagine how good it will feel to have a handful of simple, effective design directions laid out in front of you. That does not mean you have to present all possible directions to the stakeholders. Paul Rand presented one logo to his clients. All the hard work, rejected ideas and B+ logos were never seen outside his studio.

In conclusion, I am in complete agreement that ineffective designs should be put out to pasture before they burn more time than absolutely necessary. But just skipping the process will not work. In fact, it seems to me that only years of the difficult pursuit will yield shortcuts, and then only occasionally.