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The evolution of simplicity in design

5 min read

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" - Steve Jobs

Getting in early at Atom provided me with the unique opportunity to see the bank grow from 10 people in 1 room to a team of people on 2 floors of a building. I’ve been an intern at start-ups before but never for long enough to see them grow substantially. Whilst it’s fascinating to see the team grow in numbers, expand into new buildings and onto new floors, it’s even more captivating to see the brand grow.

When I started, there wasn’t much of a brand. There wasn’t really much of anything. There was an ambition, a few people to make that ambition a reality, and a cafe that sold possibly the greatest chicken and pesto paninis. When it comes to the brand, the only sense that you got of it was a rather bland holding webpage that couldn’t excite a child who just had finished their 3rd pack of skittles. Now, as I sit here 9 months later, we have around 100 employees who are working harder than ever to build this bank, and a brand that each individual employee is proud to be a part of.

Another advantage of getting in early at a start-up is the relationships you can form with senior execs; getting the exposure to them that you wouldn’t typically get at established companies.

To this end, I started to work alongside the CEO of Atom, and ex CEO of first direct, Mark Mullen. He has vast experience in marketing and, being a recent marketing graduate, it was great to have him sitting on the opposite side of the table.

It was after expressing an interest into the UX design of Atom that Mark emailed me about Atom’s design principles. He spoke of his background in design and urged me to further my understanding of  the design principles of existing brands before getting involved with the UX work at Atom.

So I undertook a little research to further my understanding of design principles and, of course, I came across Jobs and Markula at Apple and how their principles mirrored those of Dieter Rams and Braun.

I wanted to use this blog post to share my research with you.

It was in the late 1970s that Rams stopped to have a look at the world of design around him. He was worried that it was becoming “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises”, and he used this time to ask himself “is my design, good design?” Rams could not simply measure this and thus set out to create 10 design principles of which all of his future creations would adhere to. These principles are:

  • innovative
  • makes a product useful
  • aesthetic
  • makes a product understandable
  • unobtrusive
  • honest
  • long-lasting
  • thorough down to the last detail
  • environmentally friendly and
  • as little design as possible

As I was reading through these principles I was able to recognise each in certain modern-day products. Rams outlined these principles in the 70s and even today designers are incorporating them into their work, and this is nowhere more obvious than at Apple. 

It was the final principle ‘… as little design as possible’ that I relate to Apple more than any. Although they do follow most, if not all of Rams’ design principles, their simplicity is something I fell in love with on the day my Dad brought home a 1st generation iPod. Thinking about Apple’s range of products, and looking at my iPhone 6, there’s nothing that grabs my attention specifically. There are no gimmicks. A simple colour palette. Nothing immediately remarkable and that’s what is so beautiful about it.

The commonalities I saw in Rams’ principles and Apple’s design led me to delve deeper into Apple’s design principles.

Craft, above all

It can be argued that all of Apple’s products are flawlessly designed. It’s clear to see they spend as much time designing the back of the phone, as they do the front. This stems back to a lesson Jobs’ father taught him about carpentry. Jobs’ father talked to him about building a beautiful chest of drawers, and how although the back of the drawers will never be seen, you’ll still use a beautiful, strong piece of wood in the back in order for the aesthetic to be carried all the way through.

The Sunflower Macintosh is a great example of this. It's not portable and so sits fixed to the desk. The back of the Macintosh will rarely, almost never, be seen yet there is still a delicately fine Apple logo fixed to the back of the monitor. Jobs states that although the user may only see this once a year, it still mattered because that single time made an impression. 

Empathy

This principle of Apple’s design is about knowing your customer. An empathetic nature at the heart of Apple allows them to further understand their customer in order to realise their wants and needs. This enables Apple to see how their customers behave and thus create a product that is perfect for them.

Focus

Focus may seem an obvious principle in design. You’d think there isn’t a successful company out there that doesn’t ‘focus’ on what they’re building. But it is Apple’s focus that compliments the simplicity of their products. They focus on what is important by eliminating anything and everything that proves to be insignificant and this assists the creation of some of the most desired products that exist.

Impute

Despite the resistance, people DO judge a book by its cover. It’s often a subconscious process, but it’s a matter of fact. Jobs says in his biography “We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc.; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities”.

This principle can be seen not only in their products, but also throughout the whole company. People judge a company on every single interaction they have with it, which is why it is so important to perfect every step of the way. Apple has nailed every step of the customer decision-making process. From their beautifully art-directed adverts which tell you what you need to know about the product, to the simple payment procedure (either in store or online), to opening the elegant box, which feels like it’s been packaged just for you, to finally creating an operating system that makes everyday usage an absolute pleasure.

Friendliness

It was by studying household appliances that Jobs realised technology devices could in fact be friendly. The creation of the Macintosh 128k evolved to look like a face, with a long, slim frame to resemble a head, and a disk drive below the screen to represent a mouth. To this day, Job’s principle of friendliness rings true with their ever-smiling Finder logo. Jobs came up with this principle whilst studying household appliances - maybe it was a Rams creation.

Simplicity in the future using metaphors of the past

Finally, my favourite feature of Apple is their simplicity. Jobs, above everything else, wanted his products to be simple. In ‘Steve Jobs’, the biography, Walter Isaacson speaks of how Jobs had the ambition to do with TV what he had done for computers, music players and phones. Isaacson goes on to say Jobs knew he cracked this when he came up with the simplest user interface imaginable. Alongside Apple TV, simplicity is a main feature within all of Apple’s products, and is one of many reasons why I am a repeat customer.

Who’s to say Jobs’ inspiration came from Rams? But one thing is for sure, both of their products follow a similar set of principles that results in some incredible products.

Image credit: raneko