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An informal, stream-of-consciousness reflection on business ideas, events and issues in modern business, modern life and with some specifics to the web-software industry by Paul Tomori, Internet Entrepreneur

Minimalistic Design Does Not Come From Minimal Effort
A Message To The Less Is More Crowd

By Paul Tomori
Friday, December 02, 2011 at 12:46:27 (EST)

I am amused though sometimes annoyed by the swell of designers out there who are embracing the "less is more" philosophy of design. Some of them seem to be applying "less" to the amount of effort they are undertaking. Let's do a little case study.

A few years back, Blackberry was the undisputed leader in hand-held devices and mobile email. They had this neat little device with a QWERTY keypad and a little screen.... dozens of little buttons at your thumbtips beckoning you to compose quick responses or missives on the fly. I liked it. I liked it very much. Sure, I was then tethered to my business everywhere I went, but I had peace of mind that if I were on a hike somewhere, I could be apprised of something urgent and actually do something about it without having to cut my walk short. How might another company come along and outdo such a device? Apple asked themselves that very question. Their answer: "we will underdo the competition". Instead of all those little buttons, they put just one to activate/deactivate the device. Then, they made the screen larger and made it touch-sensitive and gesture-sensitive so that any needed buttons or personal interactions could occur through that screen. If only 10 buttons were needed, for example to make a phone call, then only 10 would be presented on the screen. What the consumer ended up with was the iPhone, an elegantly simple (and minimalistically-designed) hand-held device.

When you read the background on how Apple came up with their simplified interface, it is truly fascinating. It took a tremendous amount of modeling, brain-storming, prototyping... all over about 18 months. In other words, it took them a HUGE effort to figure out a way to present their customers with LESS buttons. As with most technologies, the increased complexities are all hidden from the consumer so that their experience can be more enjoyable and more efficient.

Such is the nature of a truly "less is more" mindset. In fact, the phrase should not be "less is more"... because that still seems to imply that "more is better".

Anyway, I have seen some website designs come across my desk for assessment and for possible consideration in client projects. The designers have embraced what they think is the less is more philosophy, by doing less work. Lots of whitespace can be a good thing if that works to emphasize some actionable component of the design (take Google's mostly blank homepage, but where the call to action is simply to enter your search words). Stripping away all the fluff is an inherent part of the less is more pursuit, but stripping away the meat is not.

So my message to the wannabe Zen designers. It's going to take you MORE effort to deliver a sparser design, not LESS effort. Embrace that fact at your own peril, but don't deliver shoddy design work passed off as "minimalism" if the design doesn't actually achieve the objectives. If I couldn't actually still type a note on my iPhone, then the loss of little buttons wouldn't be pleasant, it would be infuriating. The same goes for website design - it still needs to work for the audience to reach the objectives of the business it represents. No amount of minimalism can replace that. Get ready to sweat and iterate if you want to succeed as a true minimalist designer.

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