Dieter Rams talked about the benefits of timelessness in his ten principles of good design. He framed timelessness as avoiding fashion.
Good design is long-lasting. It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today's throwaway society.
Fashions are "styles of the time". An appearance or approach to design that is currently popular, but will soon be overtaken by the next fashion. I believe that the more visual design elements you include in a design, the more likely it is to be part of a fashion trend, because more visual elements make a design easier to categorise. More "bits that stick out" make something easier to love, or hate, or have any immediate emotional reaction to. If you focus on the core of the design, and allow fewer bits to stick out, you neatly sidestep fashion.
Frank Chimero says it well:
Aesthetics are fleeting, the only things with longevity are ideas.
One of the reasons old films are remade is that ideas are timeless, but film making techniques are not. It's unfortunate that when these films are remade, there's not an effort to make them more timeless, but less. CGI is added. Language and references that are specific to our time, and that'll be old fashioned in 50 years. I've noticed that Disney/Pixar movies use almost no modern cultural references. Their competitors, on the other hand, are adding jokes about selfies and social networks to the script. Do you think selfies will be a popular idea in 50 years time? Disney doesn't. They think ideas like "love" and "loss" will be popular concepts in 50 years time, and they're almost certainly right.
The same is true for simple design. It's never going out of style, as Nathan Kontny tells us:
So, if you're trying to strategize on what's going to be trendy in business and software next year, I wouldn't worry about “simple”. It might not be as buzzy today as it was yesterday, but it's always in.
Not only will your simple designs stand the test of time, they'll make your life easier. The design trends you see on Dribbble and other fashion-focused communities change almost day to day. Everyone involved seems to be in a frenzy of producing the next shaded masterpiece, rather than solving problems. Jonas Downey finds it exhausting:
Keeping up with what's hot is an exhausting zero sum game. I tried keeping up with the hot trends for a while, and it never worked out so well. I wasn't very good at doing trendy design, because it was all about someone else's style, not my own. What's worse, even if you are on trend, the best you can do is hang on for a fleeting moment until the trendsetters move on to the next thing. As Jonas Downey says, it's exhausting:
Timeless design is easier to visually design. It's also easier to implement. Jeffrey Zeldman makes the case that certain front-end technologies are also timeless. You've probably seen how fashion-focused front-end development can be.
So whether you use a framework as part of your design process or not, when it's time to go public, nothing will ever beat lean, hand-coded HTML and CSS. That's a truth that hasn't changed in 20 years, and probably won't change in our lifetimes.
Timeless design is not just about the long term, though. Even visual design choices that are successful, might turn out to not be a short time later. A half-second animation might be delightful the first time you see it, but when you use the same app every day, that half-second animation starts to be an annoyance. Especially in cases where people will use our designs over and over again, the design needs to get out of their way. That's much harder to do if we also try to be fashionable in our UI choices.
John Saito, a designer at Dropbox, explains:
Delightful details give you an opportunity to express your brand's voice. They give life to your product. But if you're not careful, delightful details can get in the way ... too many delightful details can just get annoying. They slow people down from doing what they need to do. Delightful details lose their charm over time. Delight has a shelf life, and even the most delightful details can start feeling stale after a while. To keep things fresh, you'll probably have to redesign the same things over and over again.
On the other end of the spectrum are websites that have stayed the same for many years, and are still successful. Websites like this prove that timeless design exists, and that trends aren't necessary. Almost every time companies try to redesign their classic websites, there's a backlash. Part of the reason is that there was nothing with the old design, and it's very likely the owners wanted to appear "modern". Simple design never feels old.
Jason Fried at Basecamp thinks that the Drudge Report is a timeless design:
The Drudge Report ... has proven timeless. Its generic list of links, black and white monospaced font, and ALL CAPS headlines have survived every trend, every fad, every movement, every era, every design do or don't ... When you visit The Drudge Report, you get the Drudge report. There are no interstitial ads. There's no load time. There's no buffering. There's nothing but instant content. The Drudge Report is Google-fast and Craigslist fast — quite a feat for a site that does 3,000,000 uniques a month run by one guy ... The design of the Drudge Report doesn't require a fancy CMS or, in fact, any CMS at all. It's edited by hand.
As Frank Chimero reveals, timeless design is not difficult, and in fact you can be lazy and still achieve it. Can you say the same about fashionable design?
Materially honest → ← Modest and restrained Back to the table of contents
Some might say that this blog's design has some “timeless” qualities. I will let you in on a secret: I am lazy. I want to make as few decisions as possible, but I want those choices to be good ones. I don't add cruft, because I'd have to make the cruft so that I could add it. And then I'd have to decide where it would go