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Simple, complex, ordered, butchered

More than any other blogger I’m aware of, Andy Rutledge discusses web design with an intellectual rigour that elevates the subject to an academic level. Andy has positioned himself as a conservative dissident, not only challenging commonly–held political beliefs that the design world holds, but also some of the apparently self–evident tenets of web design itself.

One of his articles argues that the concepts of simplicity and order have been erroneously conflated, that “design must often work to preserve complexity”. As is often the case when firing up the news reader and seeing that Andy has published a new post, I begin reading with some trepidation. Andy doesn’t pull any punches in his writing; for example, he states that “in many cases recommendations toward simplicity are the lazy/shallow man’s answer to design”. As someone who has often extolled the virtues of simplicity I’m immediately on the defensive: am I being lazy or shallow? Andy really knows his onions, his own blog is one of the best designed I’ve ever read.

This is, of course, a good thing. Andy is providing a service to the design community. He’s not rude (having emailed Andy I received an extremely curteous and friendly reply), but he doesn’t indulge in the back–slapping that can often be found in the comments section of blogs (in fact, Andy doesn’t do comments). Andy’s posts aren’t about community, they’re about design. They force us to strip away the ego, insecurity and narcissism that we (or me at least!) face when writing our blogs, and focus on the important questions: Is what I’m writing/doing of value? Am I being lazy? Is my work of a sufficient quality?

Andy admits that there are several holes in his argument, and invites us to “write an article or two about them”. So in that spirit, here is my humble attempt to discuss Andy’s thoughts.

What we do when we see

I think Andy is right to criticise Prägnanz’ law: without delving into cognitive psychology too much, I think a more reasonable statement would be:

When confronted with visual information, people will attempt to organize that information into the most familiar and comprehensible form possible.

When we see the face on Mars we’re not simplifying the image, we’re reassembling it into something we understand, or we can control. We could formulate several psychological causes for this (fear, for example); I’d personally go with:

It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power §481)

What does this have to do with designing web pages? Well, we could conclude that the designer’s job is to present information in a way that is easy to comprehend for the reader, so that they’re able to interpret it according to their needs. In other words, the designer’s job isn’t to simplify, but to make familiar. It’s a good argument for both convention (perhaps through keeping links blue) and for the deployment of a language, structure and imagery that the reader at once recognises.

I think Andy makes a non-sequitur here. He moves from a statement about how the reader comprehends something to the nature of what is being comprehended, when they are not the same thing. In philosophical terms, he moves from epistomology to ontology, from cognition to creation. It doesn’t follow that design shouldn’t be simple because readers don’t simplify when they comprehend; there could be a relationship between simplifying and making things comprehensible.

Playing games with names

Having moved from cognition to design and structure, Andy uses the idea of a conceptual continuum to demonstrate that simplicity and organisation are not the same thing. I think this is self-evident and certainly wouldn’t argue against it. What I would contend with are the opposites he employs.

Andy’s continuum runs from simple to complex. I’ve written about this area of language very briefly (and not particularly insightfully) before: by changing the wording I think we can interpret simplicity in a more positive light.

I don’t think “complex” carries the same negative connotations as “complicated”: quite the opposite. As Andy points out, we admire complexity in art and machinery. On the other hand, complicatedness is wholly negative. If a book has a complicated plot it’s simply hard to work out: if it’s complex then it’s challenging, or subtle.

Websites aren’t art. Or landscape gardens.

Andy’s argument once again shifts, this time from logic to aesthetics. He quotes Rudolph Arnheim:

…order without complexity produces boredom…It has long been recognized that the great works of man combine high order with high complexity.

While it is self-evidently true that some of “the great works of man” derive their beauty from their complexity, I think it should be allowed that some works are beautifully simple (or, to be even clearer, beautiful and not complex). I love Bach’s cello suites, Beethoven’s late string quartets and Nabokov, but I derive as much enjoyment from The Stooges first album, or a 10 minute Neu motorik loop. Modern tastes at least recognise the value of simplicity, reduction, repetition and even brutality in art.

Again we can ask what this has to do with web design, and the answer is perhaps nothing at all. Most websites serve a prosaic purpose: to sell a product, provide information, get people in touch with each other etc., while all art, on the other hand, “is quite useless”. Just as great work can be simple, there is no necessary relationship between the complexity of a website’s appearance or interface and its worth.

Giving simplicity a bad name again

Andy discusses what we should try achieve when we design things, stating that “The trick is to organize without changing important component relationships that serve as informational or communicative lynchpins.” He even notes that a complex solution does not necessarily produce order, citing the use of a strong grid as an example (one of my favourite subjects).

However, Andy conflates simplicity and a more ambiguous concept; namely, reduction (or butchery). Websites, like organisms, can be complex entitites. He cites Amazon as an example of a poorly organised site that would nonetheless suffer if the features and options it offers its visitors were reduced (or, as he puts it, the urge to simply “Simplify!” was followed.)

Obviously, brutal reduction can cause significant harm (not just to van Gogh’s head), but there are certainly cases where a site would benefit from a healthy dose of butchery (my employer’s site, for example). The genius in website design is maintaining a balance between functionality and ease of use, which is a not particularly inspiring conclusion. If we were feeling more confident we could perhaps speak up for simplicity by stating that designers should aim for a simple interface, which may well require a complex solution.

Bringing it all together

I feel Andy’s article becomes somewhat confused when using terms such as “simplify” and “complex” in the correct context. Let’s try to draw all these ideas together and apply them to the process of designing websites.

The article started with a discussion of a statement that claimed humans attempt to simplify visual information. We agreed that this is perhaps wrong; rather, humans try to interpret visual information in order to make it familiar. The designer’s responsibility is to therefore make sure the information s/he presents is comprehensible, perhaps masterable in some sense. Simplicity may or may not aid in this.

The organisations (or individuals) behind websites and website users have needs that may be difficult to reduce. Therefore, simple reduction is not always a desirable course of action. The designer’s task here is to serve the many needs of the website’s owner and users while maintaining a comprehensible interface. The designer’s solution may involve reduction, it may well be complex, balancing conflicting functions and the needs of user and owner. Whether this interface should be simple is still up for discussion. It should certainly be easy to use.

We also need to consider whether the information and functionality of the site is aesthetically pleasing, or whether this even needs to be taken into account (or the relationship between beauty and usability). So while our interface should be easy to use, it should also perhaps be visually complex in the way it is decorated.

In conclusion

Andy’s article is a thought-provoking, challenging series of questions for those designers who bandy around terms such as “simple” and “minimal”; it forces us to reconsider our approach to design. It certainly made me rethink many of the posts I’ve written on this blog, and the way in which I create websites. There are also holes in my article: the terms “interface” and “presentation” could do with some clarification, for example. I’d love to hear where you place simplicity within the concepts of design.