How do you make simplicity more… simple?

If you’re writing a book with ‘simple’ in the title, you owe it to your audience to eliminate complexity. For the past year, that has been my problem: how to write a book about design and technology that feels simple to read?

Early on, I sorted through my library looking for inspiration. Often, books about computing try to be approachable by using sub-headings, sidebars, callouts, icons and captions. However, I found many of them were disjointed and ugly. They didn’t feel simple, they felt confusing.

Some books, though, stood out. Looking again at what the authors had done gave me some ideas that I tried to put into practice in the design and writing of Simple and Usable.

One of the first books I reached for was Harry Beckwith’s Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing. The book is broken into short chapters of around 300 words. Each explains just one idea. As you read it, you find yourself pausing to think: how could I use that? It’s a practical, inspirational book.

I wanted to give people the same experience – a book they could read in one go or in bite size chunks that they could apply immediately.

So I decided to write the book as a series of single-page ‘chapters’. This turned out to be a tough discipline – but it forced me to cut the waffle and focus on what was important.

Whenever I flick through Bob Gill’s Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design: Including the Ones in this Book I find myself sitting down and reading it from cover to cover.

It’s out of print now, though you can easily get copies second hand. Each page is an example from Gill’s portfolio of designs, posters and illustrations accompanied by a few words which explain one principle of design and how Gill used it to answer his brief.

Gill’s images are striking, surprising, and humorous. Following his lead, I used an image on every page, to bring the ideas to life. Wherever possible I used stories to show how the ideas could be applied.

I love the writing in Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think; but it’s impossible to be original if you’re mimicking someone else and I’m glad that knew better than to try that.

Still, the authors I enjoyed were often the ones who seemed to be speaking, rather than writing. Their books also tended to be easy to read aloud. Roald Dahl is a good example. Whether it’s The B.F.G. or Going Solo, Dahl’s books are seductively easy to read. Each sentence flows naturally to the next. As I was writing, I found that reading my drafts out loud would immediately show me what I needed to cut and simplify.

That sounds straightforward, but it was probably the hardest thing to do. My editor, Margaret Anderson, was patient, helpful and positive throughout what was for me a gruelling process. My first few pages took forever to write. Later, when I looked back at them, they seemed stilted and forced. None of them made it into the final book. Once I’d found my rhythm, though, the pages began to flow more freely and writing became a welcome challenge, rather than a painful chore.

While I was learning to find my voice, I was also working with Mimi Heft, the designer at New Riders on turning my ideas about structure into a design. Here are some early concepts I sent through to her:

At first glance they are close to the final format of the book. But each iteration simplified the layout and made it stronger. My clichéd font suggestion of Helvetica was gently edged out by Mimi in favour of Whitney by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, which is modern, simple and pleasant to read.

Something that troubled me was which side to put the text. My instinct was to put it on the right. On the screen the text looked better on that side. Fortunately, a couple of people, including Jason Cranford Teague, author of Speaking In Styles, warned against this and I took their advice. It was only when the printed copies arrived that I saw how right they’d been.

Holding it in my hands, I’m delighted with the outcome of all that hard work. What counts is the feedback I’ve been getting from the first people to read it in its final form – and they’ve been saying that it lives up to my original aspirations of being simple, practical and inspirational.

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