My Checkered Past: False Simplicity

A few days ago I came across this essay about the relatively new concept of false simplicity in design–specifically web design, of course.

Though you may not have heard of the term, you’ve probably encountered the problem. If you’ve ever gone to a website with navigation buttons that are so subtle you either a.) have no idea what they do or b.) don’t even see them, you’ve been a victim of false simplicity. As I was reading the above article at inspiredology, I realized that I was perhaps a little TOO familiar with the idea… And then I remembered some of my early design work and realized that, at the tender age of 18, I was aligned with the false simplicity forces of evil!

I bought my personal domain, amour-fou.net, when I was a freshman in college, and I used it to experiment with creating websites, barely having touched HTML or CSS since I was in middle school. So I was pretty clueless starting out, and my only concern was aesthetics–not usability. Right before I actually purchased my own domain & hosting, a friend of mine hosted me, and this was one of my designs at that location:


I know it’s really hard to see, so click on the picture to make it bigger… OH WAIT what’s that? You still can’t see it? Yes, that is true.

This layout was like 90% a black screen, and even the part with text was only SLIGHTLY not a black screen. And would you like to know where the navigation was? All the way on the right there… Those little grey squares. Not only is the navigation so subtle you can barely see it, but so is the content itself. So yeah, this is like the best worst example of false simplicity ever. It’s like a caricature. It doesn’t really have any redeeming characteristics, though, unlike some other culprit sites.

My first design for my very own domain was slightly better in that there were actually words integrated into the navigation (thank god). What you can’t see in this shot is that the entire thing took up like 10% of the browser and the rest was–you guessed it!–a black screen. What was up with me and black screens??

That empty square on the right was where allll text content (and other) went, which meant that everything had to be tiny and hard to read. Also, if I wanted to post anything longer than like 75 words, I was out of luck. This design was, again, so simple that it was barely usable–though it was still wayyy better than the one before. So I was improving. Phew.

The final very old design I’m going to show you was actually never put to use–I got heavily involved with my school newspaper right after I created the design, and I shut down my website for a couple years. But it makes me happy because not only is it pretty (though not really my design style anymore), the navigation is also the main focus of the page and there is space for the page’s content!!!!!! Holy crap! Wow it’s sad that this was such a big accomplishment… But we all have to start somewhere.

Also I just really love Alice in Wonderland so I’m glad I once made an Alice layout even though I never ended up using it.

Although my old designs mostly sucked, and they were barely usable, I’m KIND OF glad I went through that stage just so concepts of design badness like false simplicity are immediately recognizable to me now. Which means that (hopefully!) I will never again be seduced by the siren song of invisible navigation.

And, in retrospect, it’s a good thing nobody actually visited my websites back then…

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