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The Secret to Understanding Design

We often discuss design. Should it be simple or complex? Should it be colorful or grayish? Do you make it low-tech or media rich? The answer can be found by looking at how design breathe.

Everything is breathing. You breathe in and you breathe out - either being full of air or having none at all. It is a continuous motion between two extremes. Take simple vs. complex. We constantly move between wanting things to be ever simpler - or ever more complex.

The secret to Complex vs. Simple design explained

Why do you think Apple's iPhone has a much more complex design (especially in the interface) than the iPod? Why didn't they keep it simple? It's because we have had it with "simple" - now we want more. We are now moving in the other direction, towards a more complex and rich environment. In 12-18 months we will again get fed up with the complexity and turn towards another period of simplicity - and so the motion continues in an eternal cycle.

Notice: Every curve is different and has different durations between its peaks. "Simple vs. Complex" roughly follows the example above. Other curves - e.g. colorful vs. low on color - have a slightly different look. The trends will also be different in other parts of the world and in each profession (the trends on the web design does not necessarily follow the trends in e.g. car design).

The trick is to know how to use this to your advantage.

Not everyone is a trendsetter

The first part is to realize that not everyone is at the same place. Trendsetters are in general far ahead - closely followed by the early adopters. These people are the driving force. They are the ones that drag everyone into the future.

The majority, however, is about a year behind the trend and the laggards haven't change yet. They only move ahead because old products are being replaced and decommissioned.

Note: The visionary are often very far ahead of everyone else - and thus often creates amazing stuff that never sells because the market it not ready for it.

Where to be?

The second part is to know how far ahead you need to be.

You need to aim for the "Cool Zones" - Where your products are close to the extremes. If people are moving from simple to complex (as we are now), you need something very complex to stun the crowd. This is what Microsoft did when they unveiled their Surface technology a few days ago.

Similarly, when we get fed up with the complexity and want simplicity, you need to make it very simple to make an impact. This is what 37Signals did a few years ago with their project management tool "Basecamp". People was getting fed up with the complexity of Microsoft Project and wanted something simple. Basecamp delivered just that.

Note: If 37Signals had released Basecamp today it would be much less successful since we are now moving away from simplicity.

Never aim for the middle. That is where the mediocrity is. Making products that are neither simple nor complex are just boring and useless. They have no sense of emotions; there is no energy.

And, never aim for the "dark side" of the curve (the red zones). Making a slightly less simple version is a very bad idea if people want more complexity.

When not to publish your product

The last trick is to know when to publish your product - and when not to.

The best moment is when we are starting to move from one extreme to the next (the green zones). This is the time when people realize that they want something else. They are susceptible to change - to something new. Act on it!

You will start to fall behind as we get closer to the extremes (the yellow zones). The cool companies have already marketed their products and the trendsetters are beginning to look in different directions. You can still make an impact if you make a really cool product - but you will not be seems as one of the innovative types.

And, you need to lay low when we reach the extremes. This is the point in time where people get fed up with it (the red zones). Wait until the early adopters have realized that they want something else - that they need to go in the other direction. It doesn't matter that the majority hasn't changed yet. It is the trendsetters and early adopters you want to reach.

The last thing to do is to identify what design aspects that is relevant to you - and what direction we are moving in. Here are some examples:

  • Simple vs. Complex
  • Colorful vs. low on color
  • Visible vs. hidden technology
  • Ordinary text/images vs. Rich Media presentations
  • Efficiency vs. Exploration
  • Manual vs. Automatic
  • Big vs. small
  • Rounded vs. edgy
  • One-page vs. many pages
  • No effects vs. fanciness
  • Social vs. isolated
  • Work vs. fun
  • Long vs. short
  • Sporty vs. comfortable
  • Strong vs. fragile
  • Masculine vs. feminine
  • Independent vs. company
  • Etc.

And always remember that the world never goes back to what it was. The kind of design we had in the past is not the one we will see in the future. Simple designs of the 80's looks hideous compared to the simple look of the iPod. Complex TV sets in the past looks old compared to Microsoft Surface.

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