Design principles in practice

Thomas BrownIt’s rare that you see such a perfect example of clarity, simplicity and design principles all coming together to such good effect. I stumbled on this website belonging to photographer Thomas Brown and was blown away by its perfect balance, restrained colour palette, and judicious use of white space.

As well as being simple and beautiful, it sends a very powerful message about his approach and the kind of work that he’s interested in doing.

The opposite of simple

Many people think that simplicity and complexity are natural opposites, but nothing could be further from the truth. You can express  very complex ideas in ways that most people can understand if you make your explanations clear enough. You don’t need to dumb down your ideas to make them understandable, you just need to present your ideas in a logical order that people can follow and use examples that people understand and are familiar with.

The opposite of simple is disorganised

When ideas are poorly organised, they look jumbled and confusing. Things can seem a lot more complicated than they really are. Think of a drawer full of stationery all mixed in together. It’s hard to know what’s in there, let alone find the pen you really need. It’s the same with ideas. When they are organised in a sensible way, people feel calmer and are able to absorb ideas more easily.

Use headings to get your ideas in the right order

Getting your ideas sorted into a sequence that makes sense is perhaps the hardest part of writing a document or developing a presentation, but it’s the most crucial step. I suggest drafting a high level plan before you start writing, so that you can get your ideas in order first. This will make the writing easier as you will already have your headings and you wont need to sit there thinking about what to write next.

Try it next time you embark on a new project and let me know how it goes.

Arguing for simplicity

I experienced something of a failure this week. I was in a meeting trying to argue the case for making things simple and I failed. It wasn’t that the other people in the meeting didn’t understand the value of simplicity, it was just that the needs of the organisation won out over simple common sense. Those needs revolved around the need to protect the organisation from claims that we had not provided enough detailed and accurate information to the public. In other words it was a ‘butt covering’ exercise. We were more concerned about our legal position than we were about being clear and helpful. My argument that we had a moral obligation to provide the community with clear information fell on deaf ears. It seems that it is better for us to be obtuse than helpful, and it struck me that this was probably a common problem in a range of industries.

I imagine that the disclaimers we need to sign before undergoing surgery are the result of litigation. We need to sign a form saying that we know about every single complication that might occur and that we are willing to waiver our rights to compensation if those things actually happen. This is not about informing the patient, but about protecting the hospital or the doctor. It’s the same at my workplace, even though I don’t work in a medical environment. We are heavily focussed on ourselves, rather than on our clients.

It’s sad though, because it means that in cases where it’s not a matter of life or death, we still focus on protecting our interests rather than helping the community to understand what the issues are so that they can protect themselves. This led me to thinking about how we could argue the case for simplicity, and whether this could lead us to being in a better position legally, simply because we had provided really clear information to the public.

On reflection, here are a few things I wish I had said…

  1. People are less likely to engage in litigious behaviour if they feel that they have been well informed. If you write convoluted product disclosure statements (or terms and conditions) that people don’t understand they are inclined to be annoyed and angry. (I don’t have any evidence for this, but it just makes sense to me).
  2. If you are clear, people are less like to misinterpret the information and are therefore less likely to have problems.  (This will protect your organisation).
  3. People will know appreciate that you are making an effort to be clear and will feel more kindly towards you. (There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that people are much more likely to engage in litigious behaviour if they feel that you don’t care).

In essence, the more you show that you care about your audience (by being clear and simple) the less likely you are to face problems. I wish I had said that…

What do you think?

How to simplify a complex topic

“There is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation – it’s about bringing order to complexity.”  Jonathan Ive – lead designer at Apple.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I agree with this statement wholeheartedly; simplicity is so much more than just removing clutter (although it’s often a good place to start). When I’m asked to review a presentation I often find that what bothers me most is when things “just don’t make sense”.  Sometimes this is because there are too many words, other times it’s because something is missing, for example the link between two related items isn’t clear. Mostly, it’s because the ideas aren’t structured in a logical way.

It’s much easier than you think to bring order to your content, and the simple solution is to sort your information into categories. If you think about it, bringing order to a complex topic is just the same as tidying up a messy clothes drawer.

This is how you do it:

  1. Get everything out of the drawer and spread it on the bed.
  2. Throw out the things that are old, or worn out, or no longer fit, or you just don’t need any more.
  3. Arrange what’s left into categories: track pants, tee shirts, socks and undies.
  4. Put them in neat piles and return them to the drawer.
  5. Congratulate yourself on being a well-organised person. 

It’s exactly the same with a presentation or a document.

Gather all your information together and look at what you can discard and what’s irrelevant. Just because  a piece of information is interesting doesn’t mean it’s useful. Once you’ve got all your content honed down and sorted into related themes, you just need to arrange this in a way that’s logical and makes sense.

Human beings love order and will attempt to make sense of unrelated items; our brains are wired to look for patterns even when they don’t exist. By arranging your content in themes, you provide the audience with a sense of order that they will really appreciate at an unconscious level.

So next time you are faced with a complex presentation or a long report, start by sorting, not by writing. You will feel less overwhelmed by the task and your audience will appreciate the results.


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