Design is a good idea.
Steve Jobs didn’t say that, but he could have and might have wished he did.
After he took over Apple in 1997, the company’s entire ethos could be summed up with that phrase.
While we could argue about what “good” means in terms of personal taste and aesthetics — and not everyone likes the look and feel of Apple products — what can’t be argued is that article, a.
A good idea.
One good idea.
So, if the process of good design could be characterized by a single word, that word would be discipline. Less is more is easy to say, hard to implement.
It took discipline for Apple not to offer 25 different laptop models instead of just the basic three. It took discipline to create the unprecedented iPhone interface, densely packed as it is with non-hierarchical information and minimal “administrative debris,” as Edward Tufte calls it.
To understand the impact Apple has had on WordPress design, the front end at least, all you have to do is look at the original WordPress default theme and look at Twenty Eleven now. Developers are marketing their themes and plugins using words like, elegant, minimalist, clean, simple — many of them directly inspired by Apple’s own homepage — and they’re doing it without anyone finding it effete or elitist.
Do a Google search for minimalist WordPress themes and check out the extensive lists. No one used to care about that. That’s the legacy of Steve Jobs, too, along with everything else in the wider culture his design sense has affected. (It took a while but Google finally decided that a clean, unified design for their Web UI made sense; and look how pretty Google+ is now.)
It will take a Steve-Jobs kind of discipline for you to run a successful WordPress site.
So many themes. So many WordPress plugins to choose from.
How many sharing buttons should we have? How many networks and services to support? All of them?
Which one of the dozens (hundreds?) of Google fonts should we use? A new premium WordPress theme supports them, shouldn’t we use them?
Before implementing anything, following any trend, ask yourself what problems are they solving? Or are they causing problems for your readers?
Just because you can change the page background color doesn’t mean you should do it. And allowing the user to change site colors and backgrounds? What problem exactly is that solving? And what does that say about the integrity of your own design decisions, not to mention your confidence in them?
Because if good design must be disciplined, it’s disciplined in order to solve problems, not create them.
How much can you take away and still solve the main problem of quickly delivering quality content to your readers? Because if you can strip everything down to that, then you’ll know you’re done.
Case in point, close to home — the redesign of WPMU DEV.
It’s not just cleaner and prettier — everything pops and the distinctive typography at large point sizes emphasizes content — it was redesigned to address the problem of unsatisfying bounce rates. How? By removing columns and focusing on one, leading the reader down the page. (I think the implementation of the screenshot slideshow is a step backward, however. You’ve already got the reader moving down the page, why bounce back up? That introduces spatial confusion — as in, where am I?)
Still, you’ve got something that Steve Jobs wouldn’t have winced at, and you didn’t have to wear jeans and black turtlenecks every day to achieve it.
You’ve got good design.
iPad wallpapers by Brett Jordan. Creative Commons License.
Apple Logo with the silhouette of Steve Jobs by Lightsurgery. Creative Commons License.