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Simplicity in Web Design at SXSW 2002

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 05, 2002

Jason Fried, Stewart Butterfield, and I will be leading a peer meeting at SXSW on Simplicity in Web Design (3:30-5:00 on Mon, March 11). If you’re attending SXSW, you should swing by and join the conversation. Here’s the panel description:

“As the Web continues to increase in complexity, many designers are looking to simplicity as a tool in designing Web sites that are at once powerful and easy for people to use. Join your peers and colleagues in a discussion facilitated by three working designers who are committed to producing work which is simple: obvious, elegant, economical, efficient, powerful and attractive. We’ll be discussing what simplicity in Web design really means, the difference between Minimalism as an aesthetic and simplicity as a design goal, who is and who isn’t simple, how you can use simplicity to your advantage, and plenty more.”

The peer meeting is something new at SXSW this year…it was described to me as “a real life chat room”. It emphasizes the interactivity and level of participation one finds in online spaces, and tries to move it into a physical discussion forum. To make that online/offline connection a little more concrete, we’re looking for examples of Web sites and applications that are designed with simplicity in mind. Bonus points for ecommerce sites, Web tools, or sites that are not obviously simple (a site might be visually complex, but still easy to use). Share your examples of simplicity.

(Oh, and if you’re planning on attending the peer meeting (please do!), let us know if you have particular aspects of simplicity in Web design that you’d like to see discussed.)

Reader comments

fabMar 05, 2002 at 12:28PM

A bit off-topic I know, but what’s “a real life chat room”? Isn’t that just…face to face conversation? reality? Life? Ordinary human interaction? Or are attributes unique to “digital/virtual chat rooms” going to be applied in some way?

jkottkeMar 05, 2002 at 12:36PM

A bit off-topic I know, but what’s “a real life chat room”? Isn’t that just…face to face conversation? reality? Life? Ordinary human interaction?

Yeah, that’s basically it. It will be a moderated group discussion with Stewart, Jason, and I providing some direction.

MattMar 05, 2002 at 1:30PM

I am a programmer with poor design ability. I have been involved one way or the other in Internet programming since ‘96, so I have gotten better, but currently I am struggling with a simple design problem.

I have an application that has a list of menus, side-by-side each with up to 7 menu items. Each item is a report they click on. My end users are very computer ILLitterate and I want the experience to be nice-n-easy so they come back. Are there any examples of clean, easy to use, menu and report based apps out there? Any tips? Thanks.

Thanks…

steveMar 05, 2002 at 4:55PM

rosebaby defines simplicity to me in a personal site (blog). she has a minamalist look at first take, but there is clarity and revelation:
rosebaby
and nice little pictures.

happy trails,
s.

Tom AndersonMar 05, 2002 at 5:11PM

http://db.etree.org , my own site, is (I hope) a good example of a ‘not obviously simple’ web site.

Check it out if you’re interested. Hit stats for the site are found at http://db.etree.org/webalizer/

mozMar 05, 2002 at 5:12PM

i have not seen a more minimal website than maura’s (and i mean that in a good way, though i wish she had a larger line height). christine’s today.maganda website is another website designed with simplicity in mind, i think. i have not found sophisticated design coupled with simplicity often among ecommerce sites; both yahoo and craigslist, in addition to google, keep things pretty simple. i find craigslist and google to be better designed than yahoo in that regard.

i try to design my own webpages to be simple to view and clearly focused, though not always with great success. i think good design translates to simplicity (ease of use) when:

1) the appearance has very little clutter and the focus of the page is clear to the reader;
2) interactivity via javascript or anything else is kept to an absolute minimum (highlighting is fine, but generally, your neat hacks and little dhtml tricks tend to distract me more than impress me);
3) the tag structure is logical and css classes and ids are kept to a minimum.

3 is mostly a wishlist item, since i and perhaps 5 others are the only ones that could give a flying fuck if your html source looks neat and well-maintained. but if it hurts to read than it probably hurts to write. hey, i’m just trying to save you work.

by the way, jason, nice yoda comment when you try to post a comment without noting an email address.

mozMar 05, 2002 at 5:15PM

and, of course, i should have said “then,” not “than,” in “than it hurts to write.” and i guess google isn’t strictly an ecommerce site (aren’t they all really eservices websites?). sorry about that.

Steven GarrityMar 05, 2002 at 5:22PM

Sounds like a great panel. I’ve always been a fan of the crew at 37signals (the zen hospice site being one of my favourites and Stewart is running one of the best looking blogs on the web right now.

And plans on webcasting/archiving the panel? I missed the PopTech! Conference last year, but I was able to catch the sessions later of via QuickTime or Windows Media.

If not, I’d recommend it - it’s relatively cheap and easy to do, especially if there is already audio set up in the room.

tomasMar 05, 2002 at 6:54PM

I recently had a good experience at MyFonts.com. Flash site threecolor is nice.

Moira BurkeMar 05, 2002 at 8:04PM

The website for singer-songwriter John Mayer (http://www.johnmayer.com/jm_flash_enter_home.html) is elegant and powerful. One consistent navbar, clean fonts, nice icons. Surprisingly inconspicuous use of flash for navigation.

rafterMar 05, 2002 at 8:05PM

It isn’t incredible or innovative in anyway (not one of those things that you load up and say, “This is brilliant in it’s understated simplicity!”) but coffeehouse is a community-driven site I’ve been working on that is just slightly more complicated than it appears. Even rather simple-to-program features take weeks to implement because my mantra for designing the site is “simplicity is golden”… and I don’t want any checkboxes or rules that would put the user off.

rafterMar 05, 2002 at 8:10PM

I hate to appear to be an egotist, but my 404 page is also pretty usefully simple and something that I haven’t seen before… 404

RichardMar 05, 2002 at 8:49PM

The sites created by twothirty media are all usable, simple, and very good looking. (Full disclosure: the president of the company occasionally writes for a collaborative blog I run)

Tom DolanMar 05, 2002 at 11:08PM

Jason, you’re abstract is very well articulated. Simplicity (not just minimalism) is something we worked very hard at when designing the Polychrome promotional site. The site had real functional requirements, but we aimed to make it as simple as a kiosk or ATM —- without sacrificing visual strength. Anyway, sounds cool. Wish I could be in Austin.

BillyMar 05, 2002 at 11:08PM

I like Sound the Sirens. Simple, easy to read and fast loading. Of course.

JamesMar 05, 2002 at 11:40PM

There’s something gloriously simple about a site run using a WikiWikiWeb — anything typed in LikeThis becomes a link to the page with that name, automatically.

Typed in? Yep — one-click editing. Click “edit,” type some changes in an obvious pidgin, and poof — your changes are live. I’ve seen them used to run discussion groups, but they really shine for doing collaboration. It’s not that they do a lot to help: they don’t. Rather, they’re so easy to get going and so easy to work with that getting a bunch of people to use one isn’t a big investment learning some new interface.

insomnyukMar 05, 2002 at 11:51PM

I like the website for Further Seems Forever, especially since just about every band website I run into is using Flash way, way, way too much. Not exactly minimalist, but a good example of a pretty easy to use website that doesn’t take any work to figure out.

Dan HersamMar 06, 2002 at 12:48AM

The website for singer-songwriter John Mayer (http://www.johnmayer.com/jm_flash_enter_home.html) is elegant and powerful. One consistent navbar, clean fonts, nice icons. Surprisingly inconspicuous use of flash for navigation.

It’s also suprisingly conspicuous when you don’t have the Flash plugin and can’t navigate the site at all. In my opinion once you start using Flash for navigation, you’ve gone into the land of complexity.

telephagMar 06, 2002 at 1:38AM

Edward Tufte’s site (http://www.edwardtufte.com) represents one of the best examples of a simple and very effective front page. Not to toot my own horn, but I think my own site (http://telephag.hampshire.edu) is a very simple yet effective approach to a portfolio site. JavaScript used for actual interaction.

Javier CandeiraMar 06, 2002 at 2:44AM

Suck.com was, to me, the epithomy of simplicity in web design. An essay a day, five days a week, and that is it!. Pity it didn’t survive the onslaught.

GeorgeMar 06, 2002 at 7:44AM

My gold standard for simplicity is http://www.prosaic.nu/

Frank PetronioMar 06, 2002 at 8:16AM

http://www.cleanpage.com makes simple websites for people.

Tom DolanMar 06, 2002 at 9:16AM

“…When you don’t have the Flash plugin and can’t navigate the site at all. In my opinion once you start using Flash for navigation, you’ve gone into the land of complexity.”

I think this opinion is a separate issue, namely, does doing anything in Flash mean it’s by definition complex because of the lamentable process still often necessary to acquire/upgrade/install the Flash plug-in. This is a browser/OS issue, and while not irrelevent, I think for pragmatic purposes the peer session should not let the discussion slide off in this direction.

What’s refreshing about the topic is the framing of the concept: “simplicity as a tool in design.”

I think one could convincingly argue that the multi-layered interactivity of Flash could assist and enable a simple presentation. I’m talking about simple from the end-user’s perspective, not simple for the developer.

Dan HersamMar 06, 2002 at 11:14AM

I think one could convincingly argue that the multi-layered interactivity of Flash could assist and enable a simple presentation. I’m talking about simple from the end-user’s perspective, not simple for the developer.

It is too idealistic of a designer to only be concerned with the simplicity of the interface, ignoring the fact that many people can’t use it. The reality is that if you want everyone to be able to use your site, you have to cater to the lowest common denominator, of which Flash is not a part.

I agree with you that it may not be appropriate to address that issue in the forum of the peer meeting, but the issue is not a separate one. True simplicity should be inclusive of the entire process.

derrickMar 06, 2002 at 12:15PM

i love pseudofamous.com. i’ve not seen a cleaner personal site on the web.

Tom DolanMar 06, 2002 at 12:18PM

Dan, seems like a great time to cite stats on the installed base population of Flash. I’m as fond of good ole Kottke-esque pure HTML as you but I’m not so sure the opinon that “a lot of people can’t use it” is fact-based.

Macromedia claims “98.3% of Web users can experience Macromedia Flash content without having to download and install a player. [] Most Web browsers already have Macromedia Flash Player installed. It is pre-installed on most computers, as it is included with all copies of Windows 98, ME (including all new Windows 98, ME computers), Netscape Navigator, Apple Macintosh operating systems, America Online, WebTV, and RealPlayer, among others. To provide Macromedia Flash viewers with a seamless viewing experience, Macromedia Flash Player is distributed through a number of key partners, including Microsoft, Netscape, and AOL.”

Tom DolanMar 06, 2002 at 12:21PM

hmmm, somehow I must have commented out my link to the Macromedia stats. Here’s the link:

Flash white paper

evanMar 06, 2002 at 12:47PM

simple: kleber and almost all of the work they do (and they’ve done a lot). alt.senseand miniml are old favorites as well. all that said; nothing beats micael sippey’s weblog.

zachMar 06, 2002 at 1:00PM

Jacob Nielson is the god of simple web design and usability - check out his website at http://www.useit.com

carsonMar 06, 2002 at 1:25PM

i’ll second the mention of prosaic.nu.

(inner turmoil abounds about self link…) i think my site is simple yet appealing, in a sorta unique way. ubps.org

Dan HersamMar 06, 2002 at 2:39PM

Dan, seems like a great time to cite stats on the installed base population of Flash. I’m as fond of good ole Kottke-esque pure HTML as you but I’m not so sure the opinon that “a lot of people can’t use it” is fact-based.

Convenient that they made no mention of the Linux OS. Macromedia only offers Flash 4.0 r12 for Linux, which means I can’t view one pixel of your site. I’m not saying we’re a majority, but I wouldn’t think anyone would want to alienate an estimated 18 million tech-savvy users just because they want to have Flash on their site.

Sorry to continue this tangential thread, you just hit a sore spot of mine ;)

jkottkeMar 06, 2002 at 7:07PM

Some friends of mine recommended Aletia Hosting for a client of mine. She hasn’t signed up yet, but from all appearances, their site is highly effective, usable, and simple. Their FAQs provide excellent user-centered information (the only bad part is the single answer pages…each section should have it’s own page with each question anchored), and the hosting plans feature chart is exactly what people need to make their hosting decisions.

Well done all around. And cheap too.

tim451Mar 06, 2002 at 8:08PM

i would like to reference my own site for a cross between my need to be minimalist but still functional. of course, i’m thinking about a re-design so if you don’t see black on white, you’ve missed the boat. pay no attention to the encephalitic content.

prototypenineMar 06, 2002 at 9:21PM

Turbonium.com was a favorite of mine until they took it down. blandconsulting.com is going the all text style. stockholmnew.com keeps it simple with a straightforward “magazine” style type interaction. testpilotcollective.com is very straightforward. CDNow.com has, in my opinion, the simplest and most effective navigation. praystation.com in the days of his calendar navigation. uncontrol.com with the squares. Apple.com tabbed based navigation. Linkdup.com take a couple tries to understand what is updateing what on the screen. after a while it makes sense… so maybe this isn’t such a good one. cow.com had a simple organization approach. Amazon.com again for the “what others have also bought” lets me browse.

John StokesMar 07, 2002 at 9:51AM

Being a fan of the simple and straightforward, the CSS and XHTML tableless design at http://www.coinz.org is a good example of simple yet elegant.

J LawlessMar 07, 2002 at 12:12PM

I’m going to make you all my bitches for being the first person to mention Jakob Neilson’s useit.com, if for no other reason than to provoke some goddamned debate over which difficult-to-impliment technology (and therefore redundant in 2002) is really best.

Honestly? I think in terms of simple-to-use, probably somewhat difficult to author, is Flight 404. Very little distracting you from what’s going on but extremely evocative and theme-suitable.

J LawlessMar 07, 2002 at 12:13PM

Is SXSW even relevant anymore? Jason himself seems to think that the cause is lost from his “I feel old” comment. Who wants to pay $50/day to hear the views that “hey — glad you came, but the cause is lost. Please pick up a black capsule on the way out.”

It shows a certain arrogance to say “The peer meeting is something new at SXSW this year”. What do you think the proletariat did whilst y’all lived it up? Sat around and cried great crocodile tears at the Radison?

:P on you SXSW

lukeMar 07, 2002 at 4:06PM

Suprised iht hasn’t been mentioned. It’s been around for ages, but it’s still the best media site by far. Relevare’s site is the only site I know of where flash is used for good instead of evil :P

Doug CadmusMar 12, 2002 at 12:09PM

If I’d been able to attend I’d make this point… let’s not confuse simplicity with clarity.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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