MINIMALISM IN DESIGN

Purpose

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The purpose of minimalism is to make life of the consumer easier. A job that a designer does not do is the job that a consumer will have to do — continually throughout the lifetime of a product. When a designer decides to manifest an interaction that can be accomplished with one knob as three buttons, he dooms the consumer to do three things instead of one for the whole life time of the product. Multiply this by the number of products sold and this negligence becomes a catastrophe.

Think about it: you spend a day making something simple that will save just one second of the consumer’s life. The product sells to one million consumers who use it for 5 years and interact with it twice a day — this is 3,650,000,000 seconds, or approximately 42200 days, or 115 years. This is a whole life time of a person and then some. This day of work of just one designer has a tremendous impact.

 

I won’t deny that I am lazy myself. But this laziness helps me when I am trying to improve my workflow, my pipeline, my render times and so on. However, making something more complicated than it has to be is broadcasting laziness to the public. When I looked at the numbers for the first time I was genuinely shocked.

In order to view this problem a bit differently, imagine that you’re not actually doing work, but just taking a walk. The walk is a metaphor for the work you have to perform to save just one second of the consumer interaction. By walking just 4 city blocks, you save in total a distance of going around the Earth about four times. This is a huge power and a huge responsibility!

 

Breaking down complexity

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Every product has a specific purpose that is expressed in its function. The function can be broken down into points of interaction. These points can be expressed in multitude of ways, from virtual user interfaces to physical knobs and buttons to physical actions which can be performed to the product as a whole.

Every interaction should be understood and separated before we can start thinking how to make a product minimalistic. This is very important as these interactions present you with a canvas that is filled with problems you need to address. Even the simplest interactions such as turning something on and off are two distinct processes. Only once you have laid down the domain of the product in a clear unobstructed way we can start thinking about reducing it to physical manifestations.

 

Dealing with combinatorial explosion

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We start with the pile of various interactions. Let’s say we have 12 different interactions and we want to group them in 4 groups of 3 interactions. There are 220 different ways of doing this. For complicated products like electronic synthesizers, or complicated software this quickly explodes to very large numbers.

Common sense, intuition, conventions can help eliminate most combinations. But relying too much on conventions stops us from innovating, which brings us back to combinatorial explosion of all possible interfaces.

 

TIMELINE

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The strategy that I use the most is laying down interactions on a timeline. How will an end user interact with the product? Clearly you can’t press play without turning the player ON. Or can you? When we lay down all the interactions on a timeline we can see that some of them can consume others.

 

Example

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Let’s look at an example of a sound preamplifier. There are a few interactions possible with this device: turning on, changing volume, turning it off. Usual encounter of a typical preamp with a user will look exactly like this on a timeline: on, volume, off.

However, only the volume is something a user is actually interested in. Turning device on and off is what designer makes user do.

 
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If we think of this from another angle: when the volume is 0, the device doesn’t really do anything — it might as well be OFF. When the volume is at a value > 0 we expect the device to do something — amplify the signal. By combining ON/OFF functionality with the volume knob (OFF when the volume is 0, ON when the volume > 0) we transform conventional preamp design with an ON/OFF button + volume knob into a device that only has an interface for changing volume.

This ideology has an even greater impact on products that have many more points of interaction.

 

Implementation

Don’t spend perfecting little details before you’ve done at least some validation. Do most detailing at the very end. The last 20% of the visual impact is what usually takes up to 80% of the total time spent. Those are very important 20% that will communicate the care with which you you make your designs, but you don’t want to redo this particular slice of work multiple times.

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Testing

Based on the purpose of your design — anything from a real product to a visual piece in your portfolio — you want to try several strategies. For the real product a prototype is essential — something you can hold in your hand. The more people you can show this to the better. Choose those people who were not involved in the design to avoid bias.

For portfolio work, try to give your design some personal space and time to relax from your own thoughts. It’s a good idea to spend a few days apart while working on something else or relaxing. Revisit your design in a few days for final touches. You’d be surprised how many new ideas you can come up with by not thinking.

 

Other Cases

There is no single hypothetical human we design products for. We design for real people with real needs and problems. There are people who want to simply come home and listen to their favorite music without tinkering with tons of knobs and buttons. There are also those who require full control for the sake of personal comfort. Left with a single volume knob these consumers will feel limited or almost imprisoned by the lack of control over the device. They require granularity and many options, but that doesn’t mean they require clutter and unnecessary interfaces. Talking to these consumers will uncover a lot of truths about what functionality is important; what is the hierarchy in the required interactions, and what kind of knowledge can be considered common sense. Armed with this knowledge, we can deal with combinatorial explosion of interactions in a meaningful way that will result in clean minimal design, and at the same time — comfort for the end user.

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