Law 6: Context

Mon, Dec 11, 2006

Simplicity Rules

This is part of a series looking at John Maeda’s ten Laws of Simplicity.

“What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.”

Maeda is a designer and this is a designer’s chapter. Of course, designers already understand the importance of the periphery. If you think the design process is nothing more than making something look pretty, you’re a great candidate to read on.

Like some earlier chapters, Maeda provides a helpful continuum to explain the law of context:

Law of Context continuum

Somewhere in between the extremes is a place Maeda calls “comfortably lost.” It’s going to be different depending on the Web site. If it’s promoting a rapper’s new album, users are more willing (perhaps hoping) to be less directed. If it’s IRS.gov, then “just the facts, ma’am.”

It essentially comes down to ambiance. Maeda gives a great non-Web example about hiking a subtly-marked trail:

“I personally experiences this sensation of being “comfortably lost” on a recent vacation hike in Maine. I noted that the trails were marked with rectangles of bright blue paint. Each of the trails was highly navigable due to its good condition, but once in a while I would pause and wonder, “Where do I go next?” Almost like magic one of these blue markers that previously sat in the background of my perceptual field literally “popped” into the foreground.”

I think this law explains why “Have hay / Need hay” offends me (mentioned here). When it is translated to other types of sites they are too directed. Too dry. They become the equivalent of plastering blue signs on every inch of a forest hike.

Maeda concludes:

“At some point, with successive addition of more sophisticated elements, the true value of the untainted forest suddenly vanishes.”

The law of context says a designer should let visitors, whether to a Web site or state park, feel “comfortably lost.” Maybe that is the “feel” half of “look and feel?”

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