Life altering, game changing, world saving – these are phrases that get tossed around a lot in our sector, with good reason. Being passionate about helping non-profits succeed through technology is why we are always looking for new ways to engage our audiences. But when the latest “it” tool or hottest engagement idea makes us want to immediately have a “Success story” to tweet to the world, we eager pioneers often complicate rather than simplify. Accordingly, as Beaconfire’s resident Philosopher, I feel a radical ontological statement coming on. Brace yourself – it’s a real “game changer”:
Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make me Think”, one of the classic web manifestos of our time, set out to make web site usability accessible to average mortals through – wait for it – humor and common sense. Well, Duh. Designers the world over (including me) instantly FacePalmed, asking, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that?”
I discovered this deceptively simple book in 2005 when I was the art director for a large national non-profit and struggling with a mind numbing mix of design by committee, fungible timelines, and internal politics. Suddenly I realized I wasn’t the only “over thinker” out there and that there was a very simple way to solve the problem: Cut it out.
In retrospect, of course it wasn’t at all that simple. Making a sharp left turn in the Titanic is easier than changing dug-in mindsets at any organization, but Krug’s masterpiece made me completely rethink my own design process and work hard to lead others by example. Rather than create overly complex interactions or layouts that made perfect sense to me, I realized that an audience didn’t have me over their shoulder to explain my brilliance. It might be liberating to kick best practices in the teeth and forge new visual ground with a small gray-on-white search box in the lower right corner of a 1400 pixel wide page, but expect your site to be as useful as the digital equivalent of a paperweight.
“Don’t Make me think” reminded me of lessons learned in my former life as a theatrical lighting designer. When trying to light a critical scene of The Crucible in grad school, I had nearly all 500 lamps up at 100% and couldn’t figure out why I just couldn’t “see” the stage anymore. My teacher made me go to complete black and one by one, only bring up the single lights that illuminated the story of the characters. A moment that started out blindingly overwrought became dramatically focused, all by remembering why we were there in the first place.
For non profits, when time, money and flexibility are usually in short supply, we need to be even more vigilant about keeping our websites useable and effective. Remember that simple doesn’t have to be boring, sexy doesn’t have to mean complex and innovation can spring from logic. Steve (yes, we’re on a first name basis now) taught me that. I firmly believe that his book helped me become a better designer, communicator and teacher, for which I am forever grateful.
So do me a favor? Next time you can’t explain your design concept in less than 100 words, go to black and start again, light by light. Stop thinking so much – Steve would be proud.