Simplify, simplify

Given the brain-rot that’s induced by what passes for pop culture these days, perhaps you could be forgiven for believing that Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil invented minimalism. No, wait. You couldn’t. What was I thinking?

Minimalism (he huffed pretentiously) has been recognized as a school of

art since the late 1960s. It favours simple geometric shapes and an impersonal touch, which is why some national art galleries will pay a gazillion dollars for an eight-foot canvas bearing three coloured stripes and a rhombus.

A minimalist school of Web design is also emerging. There are, of course, rifts over what exactly constitutes minimalist Web design, but it will clearly be more or less equally concerned with usability, clean coding and the visual appearance of the page.

It arrives not a packet too soon.

It once took at least a passing knowledge of HTML, file structure hierarchies and how browsers work to put together a Web page. Increasingly accessible WYSIWYG Web design software has removed that barrier. The upside is that anyone can design a Web site. The downside is often that anyone does.

Like the amateur desktop publishers before them, people who “”do”” Web pages frequently have no formal (or even informal) grounding in design for communication. They don’t know what works and what doesn’t. The upshot of this is often garish pages festooned with multi-coloured, flashing text, cheesy animation, disruptive backgrounds and gawd-awful navigability.

Even the pros can be guilty of poor design. With each generation of dynamic Web tools seem to come bigger and more irrelevant Flash animations. They’re often breathtaking. They’re more often simply bandwidth gluttons.

It’s for the latter reason that one school of minimalist thought focuses mainly on coding. Minimalism is about zippy loading and universal accommodation of the display technologies – browsers and screens. If the school had a manifesto, it would be the one posted at www.islandnet.com/ideas/webdesign.html. No Java, Active-X or ShockWave. No special fonts. Alt tags for graphics. No backgrounds.

Jarrod Piccioni – who hosts a lengthening list of links to minimally designed Web sites at www.textbased.com – takes a different tack. Pure data may be minimal, but it isn’t designed. If it doesn’t have some kind of formatting – cascading style sheets to specify fonts, at least – it doesn’t qualify. Lean design is beautiful design. Piccioni seems to be a disciple of author Curt Cloninger, proponent of clean, content-focused design.

His Web site – coded in Notepad, by the way – notes he got his grounding in usability from Jakob Nielsen. The California consultant has been banging the usable interface drum loudly for many years in books and his regular Alertbox column on his personal Web site. He’s a harsh critic of complexity, and insists that most Web design is too complicated for half the online population.

In a 2001 study, Nielsen concluded that online buyers succeeded in making a purchase in only 56 per cent of attempts. Almost half the time, they couldn’t work their way through the complexities of the buying process.

Nielsen is a guideline machine. He has published 207 guidelines for e-commerce sites; other lists include guidelines for search engines, international usability, usability for kids, seniors, the disabled and journalists. (there’s a summary of his report on how reporters use the Web at www.useit.com/alertbox/20010401.html. For my sake, please, please read it).

Simplify, simplify, said Thoreau. Good advice from a man who predates the Web by more than 100 years. A little minimalism goes a long way toward making the Web experience happy, productive and esthetically pleasing.

dwebb@itbusiness.ca

Webb tries to maintain a minimalist design between the pages of eBusiness Journal, which he edits. His column appears every two weeks.

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