A Scientific Perspective on Minimal Design


Quick, try to recall the last five seconds that just passed as accurately as you can. What’s that, you can’t? Well, that means that you are just like the rest of us: blissfully unaware of our limitations.

Try and think of twelve items of any description, write them down so you can check them out later, and then stop thinking about them. Do whatever you want: hang the laundry, do the dishes, do anything, but let time fly over you (but not by much) and then come back, sit down, take a deep breath and try to recall the twelve items that you wrote.

If you remembered more than half (give or take two), then you have a way above average short-term memory (The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two, George A. Miller, 1956). Truth be told, the limits of our consciousness are there for all to see, hidden in plain sight. We just need to pay attention to actually notice them.

How can we, then, function in a society that demands so much from us? A society that demands attention spans longer than 12 seconds, multi-tasking skills on par with an octopus on Ritalin, and the amazing ability to sit on a chair (for those lucky few) doing God knows what four hours at a time? The answer is simple: we don’t need to.

Our brain, in its infinite wisdom, decided to carry that load for us. It decided to let us handle only what we could instead of what we should, running on autopilot most of the time, leaving the low-level tasks to automated scripts and the rest, a hyper-condensed blurb version of reality, to us.

How can we design for such a brain? How can we attempt to see that which is never shown? How can we crack the black box without crashing the plane? The answer is simple as well: we don’t need to.

We design, instead, for the painfully limited, but infinitely more understandable, conscious self so that we can reach behind it.

We turn those human limitations into design limitations, giving birth to minimal design, which instinctively strives to appeal to our conscious (and unconscious) instincts and perceptive models by removing anything that needs some form of high-level cognitive functions, leaving only immediate, straight, instinctive, and direct comprehension because, truth be told, our eyes want it simple and clean.

The Conscious Automaton

A famous 2007 experiment, conducted by John Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, and he wanted to register the exact moment in which a person takes a decision, and the amount of time it takes for that decision to be executed.

What they found, however, was way more confusing and even more challenging.

It seems that even though the conscious decision to push the button which the patients were asked to push at will was registered a second before the actual activity took place, patterns of brain activity registered as much as seven seconds before the conscious decision-making process were able to predict the eventual end result of said decision.

“The first thought we had was ‘we have to check if this is real’,” says Haynes. “We came up with more sanity checks than I’ve ever seen in any other study before.” But the results were there.

Now, disregarding all the ethical and philosophical implications of the experiments, which are plenty, this showcases the real limitations of our conscious will and underlines the fact that our brain does more things behind our backs than previously thought.

Who knows what else is being automated, what arcane and long-forgotten algorithms lay dormant, locked deep inside our mammal brains?

What’s important, though, is that these processes happen without the bare minimum of conscious input and, therefore, without our control which means we can identify those subconscious processes, those deep structures, and guide them gently toward our own ends.

We can design for robots. Fleshy, squishy, pink, and soft, but, to a certain degree, robots still.

Memory, Attention and the Gestalt.

It’s not easy designing for robots. The process requires an intimate understanding of the way in which their perception work. It requires deep research into the way in which it recognizes and stores data and more.

Fortunately, such research has been done, though much more is still undiscovered.

Prägnanz Law – What do you see, several unconnected circular shapes and straight lines or… [Image Source]

Among the many studies and theories on the subject, there are a few key players. One of them was the Gestalt school of psychology, which was a group of theories and experimental studies conducted in Germany by several influential scientists at the beginning of the 20th century.

They came to the conclusion that shapes and perception are two correlated phenomena, that human perception found shapes where there were none and that we were conditioned to find them because the shapes, themselves, appeared everywhere.

Sounds confusing, right? It will become clearer once you understand the concept of “Prägnanz,” or “pithiness,” which is what determines which shapes prevail.

Imagine, for example, a series of dots arranged randomly. They can be interpreted in many ways: as irregular shapes, as a geometrical set, or as isolated blobs, among many others, but the one that prevails, statistically speaking, is the geometric interpretation.

That means that we are predisposed to find geometrical shapes everywhere.

What the gestalt experiments concluded was that, among the many possibilities, we tend to perceive reality in terms of the simplest, most stable, symmetrical shapes and that it’s precisely because those shapes exhibit the aforementioned characteristics that we find them everywhere.

They are pregnant shapes, we can’t escape their ubiquity, and they impregnate our cognition.

It takes virtually no effort to recognize and recall them, and they are the first thing we notice. Now, remember which design principle stresses the importance of basic, geometrical shapes? Those are “pithy” shapes. They possess simplicity and stability.

I wonder, which design style could that be? [Image Source]

Another important piece of scientific evidence, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information by George A. Miller, which has been mentioned before, ponders the limits of our ability to make a judgment faced with multiple variables and our short-term memory’s capacity to remember things with 100% accuracy.

Miller came to the conclusion, by cross-referencing many studies, that the sweet spot to be able to recall a list of different items accurately was that of 7 items, or chunks as he called them, which he defined as the smallest unit of memory a person can remember.

That number has been fiercely debated, but still, it never rises higher than 12, for the most part, which is relatively small as well.

Now, remember which design principle stresses the importance of having as few design elements as possible? It’s because we have a small short-term memory.

In 1999 two scientists, Simon Chabris of Harvard University and Daniel Simmons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted an experiment on inattentional blindness, which is the name of the cognitive phenomenon in which unexpected or excessive stimuli is gone completely unnoticed by the conscious mind.

The experiment asked a series of participants to watch carefully a movie in which a series of basketball players passed a ball between them and counted the number of passes.

While they were doing that, a man dressed as a gorilla walked into the middle of the scene, banged his chest, and then went away.

The subjects often failed to notice said man. Remember which design principle stated to use the fewer hierarchies and the least amount of stimuli possible? It’s because we are naturally predisposed to ignore stimulus among a certain threshold.

Tailored To Our Limitations

It’s time to face the possibility that minimal design is just suited to our cognition in such a way that, if we desire immediate, absolute, and unambiguous communication, it may as well be our best choice.

That’s why it proved so successful when it was born in the 20th century. That’s why it’s still successful. But, as with the very same cognitive model it’s made to appeal to, it may also be really limited.

Because it works immediately, because it’s direct, straight, and instantaneous, it may also be dry. Because, in reality, simplicity and minimalism are only in the eye of the beholder.

Truth be told, we see simple shapes because our brain arranges reality in that way, but the truth is that a solid shape drawn on a piece of paper, a screen, or a wall is, in fact, a texture with many micro-shapes interlocked in unusual ways.

The fine mineral grain of the brick, the thin fibers of the paper’s surface, and the myriad bright lights that compose the micro-structure of a screen’s image are all shapes in and of themselves, and often reality itself escapes the restrictive cage of the gestalt shape, and a great deal of communication is done on the rational, conscious level.

Scientific languages cannot be intuitively understood. Complex philosophical theories cannot be communicated using minimal design. Minimal design communicates minimal ideas as well, and often, that’s not enough.

The Novice Brain and the Expert Brain

When someone knows a lot about something, enough to be considered an expert, there brain functions regarding that subject are fundamentally different than the brain functions of a layperson.

They have many more automated processes regarding the low-level stuff of their area of expertise, their ability to recall information and process it on a conscious level is significantly higher than that of the layperson, and any information regarding there area of expertise is bound to enter through conscious channels.

They tend to put a lot of attention into their area of knowledge, so they are willing to take the time to fully comprehend something as long as it interests them. Therefore immediate, simple and instinctual communication is not enough.

Minimal ideas are not enough for them. They understand on an instinctive level that it’s not just shapes out there, that there are textures, and they can move between the micro-shapes feeling at home.

That’s why, for example, complex software UIs designed for experts (like most 3d modeling software) are impenetrable for the novice and the uninterested. It may be as simple as possible, but that certainly is not enough and not even near minimal standards.

In contrast, the novice expert is not going to dissect each and every proposition regarding a subject. They will suffer a bad case of intentional blindness induced by an excess of stimuli and only get a general idea.

And that general idea will go through channels unsuited for that kind of information. Somewhat unfamiliar with advanced physics usually needs analogies to be able to understand.

That’s why minimalism is perfectly suited for the novice brain because it doesn’t assume anything because it doesn’t challenge. An excerpt from The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson goes something like this:

“Jobs aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering, rather than merely ignoring, complexity. Achieving this depth of simplicity, he realized, would produce a machine that felt as if it deferred to users in a friendly way, rather than challenging them.”

And in that way, minimal design aims for a design that looks friendly, because it hides nothing. Because all you see is all you get, because this transparency in form and function is refreshing for the person who desires nothing more than use that damn device to make a call or listen to music, instead of hacking the Pentagon.

That’s why flat UI design, or almost flat design, is so appealing.

That’s why it’s so effective; it appeals to the natural way in which we interact with things, with discreet elements, shapes, and a few of them, with few colors.

Learning in such an environment decreases inattentive blindness and increases the user’s ability to recall buttons, options, and functions by decreasing the net amount of options presented.

It took us several hundred years to be able to come up with a set of general principles for making tools, appliances, and communication accessible to everyone (though not suited for everyone) by identifying the core principles that guide our most basic cognitive processes and understanding their limitations.

Limitations that we often forget because designers are experts in communication and, well, we think images, interfaces, and appliances like experts do.

But we do not design for ourselves. While we might enjoy getting lost inside an ambiguous image, the average person does not and so must address their limitations.

We must strive to bypass them and reach a deeper, subconscious level in which communication becomes instantaneous, automated, and direct.

So reduce, decrease, flatten and subtract until it’s able to go through the small hole of the conscious mind, and you’ll have won.

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