Text: Plain and Simple

30 April, 2005

In the last few weeks, a trend has been growing towards simpler web design that looks more and more like unstyled HTML. Influential designer Tom Coates recently switched over to an extremely simple, almost austere, format for his blog and philosophized about it. Two days ago Ben Hammersley joined the fray with his essay on why simple is the new black.

I've been feeling a similar desire to simplify things when it comes to all of the web designing I do and I think it has a couple of sources. First, doing more and more of my online reading in my RSS reader means that my eyes have gotten more and more used to plain unstyled text, making the graphical web feel like a loud and shiny carnival show, when I click over to it. Sometimes, that's what I'm looking for, but it's not necessarily the most efficient mode for information transfer.

Also, as I've been using my text editor for more and more projects, it (rather than Microsoft Word) has become the thing I reach for to make daily text documents for whatever purpose. And thus, when it comes to printing things out, I find myself using HTML and CSS. Even though, on first glance, this sounds more difficult, since I've gotten to the point where I don't have to really think about the markup too much, I actually find that making documents this way can be simpler and, believe-it-or-not, faster, than using a behemoth like Word since SubEthaEdit doesn't fight me at every turn.

Finally, this shift towards the look of unstlyed HTML (because that's really what these new simple designs are approaching) fundamentally jibes with the practice of the alpha geeks. Danny O'Brien and Merlin Mann have argued that the tips and tricks alpha geeks come up with end up eventually trickling down to the rest of us because they're the ones that first encounter new problems (spam, organization or large amounts of email and files, constant interuption from IM, etc.) and because they're more likely to have the tools to solve them. For all kinds of reasons, alpha geeks seem to love plain text it helps them "see the trees for the forest, so to speak, without the GUI getting in the way of their work." This applies equally well to the reading of web pages, especially blogs which can prickle with tiny design elements just the way GUI apps suffer from feature bloat.

Basic HTML (or something that looks like it) is a way to reduce the amount of "GUI" on the information that you're trying to get to (or, conversely, to distribute). After all, even though the graphical web is a great thing, when it comes to text, I think that the book has got it beat.

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