Gonna be some changes around here

Kinda. Sorta. Started tinkering today trying to knock a new WP template together for the blog. Putting up a temporary template in the meantime. Perhaps not the most advisable method – working on the live site – but I’m thinking the stakes aren’t exactly high :/

Could be a few false starts along the way, suffice to say the blog will be in a state of flux for a wee while.

Laws of Simplicity

The recently rejuvenated UX Bookclub Belfast, brought to us by the good people at Front, had “Laws of Simplicty” by John Maeda as its September selection.

I wish this had been written when I was a student or graduate designer. I come from a generation of designers where the goal was generally to embellish, embellish, embellish, and that was evident in the the wave of websites which emerged when designers finally decided to engage with the web in the last couple of years of the nineties. This should certainly be a must-read for all design students. Here are a few of my random thoughts and quotes from the book:

The first edition came out in 2006; throughout the book Maeda makes repeated reference to the iPod as a paradigm of simplicity principles. I would love to know if this reverence extends to the iPhone which is – to me – a hugely complex device, one which seems to base its appeal almost exclusively on aspirational aspects, albeit its functionality is split into a large number of smaller, simpler modules.

“Good design relies to some extent on the ability to instill a sense of instant familiarity” – this is very true when one thinks of patterns in UX design, and yet some designers are ashamed of conforming to conventions. Doing ‘what everyone else is doing’ is generally perceived to be a bad thing, and yet it makes a vital contribution to usability.

“Ambience is the proverbial ‘secret sauce’” – very true in web design. Sometimes you can feel like you have very little room to make your mark in a ‘typical’ web project, whether the constraints be financial, or dictated by brand guidelines etc. Many small victories can be achieved through tiney details which contribute to the overall ambience.

“Synthesizing the ambient experience of simplicity requires attention to everything that seemingly does not matter”. Daaammmn. Favourite line in the book by far! I may not get a tattoo of it, but it deserves framing at the very least.

Maeda makes the point that “simple = cheap” to his mother (and others). I would suggest that simple = cheat to some; that somehow simplicity is less design. Sadly a viewpoint that is too often adopted by short-sighted clients!

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding to the meaningful” – and here we have a key differentiator between simplicity and minimalism, which tends to be about reduction at all costs, something I’ve commented on before.

Overall, great book. The last couple of pages suggest to me that simplicity does not just appeal to us as designers, but as humans. For instance, I don’t believe that anyone wakes up in the morning and thinks: “Hmm. I think I need to make my life more complex today.” More exciting perhaps, or more fulfilling, but we will naturally be drawn to simplicity as a goal. And yet, I know I continue to fill my life with “stuff”, be it gadgets that I will never unlock the full potential of, books and magazines I may never read, which do nothing but add to the complexity of my life. Maeda lets us know that simplicity is a choice.

Without over-simplifying what Maeda offers, the book forces us to reconsider what is truly helpful, emphasising that more does not necessarily mean better.

Leaving Flash behind

Even before the Apple vs. Adobe bunfight erupted, we were beginning to assess every rich media requirement on every one of our projects to see if it could be done without Flash. If it could be done in code, then we would avoid Flash. That is now standard practice.

Flash, as the default choice for delivery of rich media, has had its day. For us at least.

Adobe has had plenty of time to look for alternative directions for its product, but have preferred to continue the ‘all-things-to-all-men’ marketing approach. “It’s a video deployment platform! It’s an animation tool! It’s a fully-fledged development platform! It’s… give us a while to think of something else!”.

For me, and for many others, the leap to AS3 was too much. In trying to appeal to developers, Flash lost part of its core user base: those designers who had managed to develop rich media experiences in AS2. Adobe eventually realised this, and spent a lot of time trying to convince us that AS3 was the way to go.

I’ll hold my hands up: for years, I threw myself into conquering Flash, so sure that it would yield a fantastic future. But let’s be brutally honest: Flash was never quite the universal, cross-browser, cross-OS platform that Adobe would have had us believe. It never really worked quite in that way.

One of my abiding memories of working on advanced Flash projects was that moment when you suddenly felt very alone. You had promised the client some feature or other, completely convinced that of course Flash would be capable of it. And then you would try and implement something relatively straightforward. Then you would get stuck. Then you would hit the Live Docs, the Flash forums, and everything would go silent. You would find yourself pursuing the issue in some obscure forum, the web equivalent of a country road with grass growing in the middle. You would get that sinking feeling somewhere in the pit of your stomach, and realise that you may actually be asking something of Flash that it was never able to deliver. I had that feeling too many times, and I never want to go there again.

Adobe and its bloggers may post all they like and try to retro-evangelise that we were never meant to develop certain work on their highly legitimate platform. The fact is that for years we were asked to buy in to the idea of Flash as a site development tool. Hundreds of dire ‘Macromedia Site of the Day’ examples – usually the more complex, the better – will testify to what Flash’s masters were trying to promote. Adobe never seriously tried to change the agenda, except when early warning signs started to show, and video delivery became Flash’s saviour.

The simple fact is that the medium has had its time. At 12 years, it has had a good innings. The truth is we are finding other ways of doing what Flash used to show off about. In the early days of this migration, it even irked me. “Why is all this stuff suddenly cool to do in code, when Flash has been able to do it for years” I would whine. Then the penny dropped.

I am no anti-Flasher now. I’m a realist. So long Flash. Sorry Adobe. It’s not you, it’s me.

Simplicity vs minimalism

My work tends toward simplicity to the point that I sometimes I think it marks me out as some kind of design luddite.

As I grow older I’ve become increasingly aware of how difficult it can be to simply stop designing. There is a time when a design – or to be more accurate – a style is done, finished.

Simplicity is the art of removing complexity (my definition but apologies if this has been subconsciously lifted from an official definition from elsewhere). For the user, complexity is a usability killer. For the designer, complexity is a time drain and a creative anathema. The more complex a design is, the less sustainable it becomes and the more work is required at later stages to uphold the extreme level of detail or clutter that has been established.

Simplicity is not minimalism. I see minimalism as an aesthetic, whereas simplicity is an imperative. Very different. And simplicity does not mean “plain” or “bland”. Just simple.

I’m barely touching on this huge subject but I’ll revisit it again and again I have no doubt.

Here’s a good point well made which I think illustrates what I’m getting at: http://www.usabilitypost.com/2010/07/23/a-mild-case-of-borderitis/

There’s something about airports

Airport architecture makes them enjoyable places to be. I rarely travel by air, but I do know that it’s possible to waste hours at a time in them. It seems that ever since the Pan Am terminal at JFK airport in New York appeared, airport terminal design took a turn for the transcendent. I can’t say that Stansted Airport is up there with the best, but it’s beautiful by night.

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