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Pablo Picasso

Picasso, Hemingway and Web Design

Increasingly, we find that clients approach us with the directive to produce a web application that is “clean and simple.” While the sentiment is encouraging, I fear that we’re in danger of resting on a linguistic crutch for which we don’t have a well-developed, shared definition. What do we mean by clean and simple? When we pull out the scalpel, who’s to say what extraction is too much?

In Frank Chimero’s brilliant essay What Screens Want, which asks the question “what does it mean to natively design for screens,” the author shows how increases in our shared understanding of a computer’s capabilities allows designers to simplify elements that guide users through an interface. For example, now that we collectively understand what it means to “trash” a file, we don’t necessarily need the interface to look like a trashcan. A lot of writers seem to hang up at this intersection — the merits of flat vs. skeuomorphic design — but the waters run deeper than that.

A diversion: for years I have been obsessed with Picasso’s series of bull lithographs (Dec. 1945 – Jan. 1946), which includes a sequence of eleven plates that evolve from a realistic bull to a figure the artist created with a bare minimum of pen strokes. In the series you can see Picasso breaking down what is essential to the form and finally arriving at a beautiful result that is clearly a bull, but not nearly the same thing as plate one. (Picasso is supposed to have said “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”) I wouldn’t call the final plate “flat design,” necessarily, but it did require the artist to peel away the expected elements and show the world exactly what he saw after deep revision.

Picasso's Bull plates 1-11

Picasso’s Bull plates 1-11

I see in recent design trends something similar to what I love about the Picasso prints — namely, a desire for economy. I also sense an opportunity to move past the baggage of expected elements into a more idiosyncratic treatment of content, which seems critical to the maturing of an art form.

A similar observation can be made about good writing (doubly so on the web): the same idea expressed in fewer words results in a better outcome. Everyone from Pascale to Mark Twain to Abraham Lincoln has been credited with some version of: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

It seems to me that a move toward simplicity is natural for the art and industry of designing web interfaces. It’s time. But I think it’s a mistake to try encapsulating the progress into a blanket assessment of flatness. It doesn’t begin and end with changing your icon from a rounded, drop-shadowed trash bin into a thin outline of that same bin. It’s a process of evaluating the whole of the design and questioning the value of every element. The process will inevitably cause some discomfort as expected elements disappear, but in conjunction with information architects and other user advocates on your internal design team, it’s important to build on shared understandings to create a design that transforms the interface into its own thing rather than a lazy facsimile of the tools being replaced.

Just as paring down a decent paragraph into an excellent one is a process of moving from what anyone could say to what only this writer could say, so too is using the improved literacy of our users to say something unique and expose new layers of personality that may have been impossible in the past.