Design Trends: When Is Simple Too Simple?

Simple, clear presentation of information is an admirable goal, but some designers are taking simplicity too far. Simplicity is good, inscrutability is not.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the writer of classics like The Little Prince, once famously said that “perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” There’s a great deal of truth to this generality. Stripping away superfluous detail gives prominence to the essential aspects of a work of art, a poem, or a web page. It’s a principle that web designers have wholeheartedly embraced in recent years.

Improvements in web design technology, the mobile revolution, and improved online typography have allowed designers to create finely-balanced and elegant pages like many of those highlighted on Beautiful Open. Essential information is presented clearly, concisely, and beautifully. Simplicity allows the essential functionality of the site to come to the fore — it’s aesthetically pleasing and it’s great for conversion rate optimization.

Take a look at this site and see if you can figure out, without leaving the page, what its purpose is.

In once sense, the purpose is clear. You’re supposed to enter an email address and password to create an account. But an account for what? What is the service? Why should I enter my details?

In fact, MyFox is a home automation application for the iPhone, but you’re be a smarter person than I am if you can figure that out from the homepage.

It’s possibly unfair to call out this particular site: it’s for an application and the information you’d need is presented on its App Store page, but it’s indicative of a trend and it’s one that app developer sites are especially prone to. Five years ago I used to visit web pages and be overwhelmed with a deluge of information packed into every available space on the page—it was difficult to find the information I needed. In 2014, I often find myself following a link on social media to a “beautifully simple” page and scratching my head because I have no idea of its purpose.

This site recently had me completely bamboozled.

Once again, the purpose of the site is clear: follow the links to various app stores, but there’s no indication of why I should do so. The curious design and color choices aside, when I followed a link a friend emailed and landed on that page, my thoughts could be summed up with: “wtf?”

I understand that app sites don’t do most of their business on the web; their income and most of their custom comes from app stores. But many people’s first contact will be on the web.

Simplicity is a powerful guiding principle for design, but it’s worth remembering that a website serves a purpose. Perfection may be achieved when there is nothing left to take away, but the point is to foreground elements that best serve the site’s purpose, not compromise the design goal by oversimplification.