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This article was published on May 30, 2008

The Power of Elegance in Design.

The Power of Elegance in Design.
Steven Carrol
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Steven Carrol

Steven is a web applications developer, living in south of France, originally from London. His current project is In the nin Steven is a web applications developer, living in south of France, originally from London. His current project is In the nineties, he was a designer / director of a highly successful design, manufacturing and distribution company (Intimidation).

A few years ago it was fashionable to make fancy Flash sites that had high impact upon visiting them, fancy graphics, cartoonish displays with an arty feel. But personally speaking I don’t go back to see these sites ever again, do you?

I’m the same with movies, once I’ve seen one, I generally won’t watch it again until I have forgotten it’s plot. Thankfully that fashion seems to have passed, albeit for a few corporates who haven’t quite caught up yet.

Today we have Web 2.0 fashion. Most of us upstarts competing in this arena have aspirations for either a sellout or to grow viral traffic into the millions so that advertising can fuel growth. This time around the fashion is very sleek and polished offerings, plenty of Ajax, lovely curvy corners, with as much javascript thrown in as possible.

For all the classy styles with the fancy drop-downs, the clean looks, Ajax signup pages, there is a distant lack of ‘retention content’, but that is not the point.
The point I want to make is about proving a concept before wasting thousands on classy designs that in many cases will never be seen by more than a handful of beta testers or the developers themselves.

A lesson from bookkeeping

Building an application that has traction should be the first priority for any startup. Everything else should wait until after the concept has been sold or is gaining traction within the niche that you’re targeting.

But is it possible to prove an application has merit before you waste a fortune on graphic designers and fancy user interface features? I think it is. But before I put my money where my mouth is, I want to talk about money a bit more.

There is a well known rule in bookkeeping. To balance the books to the nearest 5 $/€/£ is very quickly done. To balance the books to the last penny/cent takes considerably longer and is evidently much more costly. By far outweighing the cost of the bookkeeper. Therefore, elegant startups who have the right priorities generally round the books up to the nearest 5 $/€/£ and then call it a day.

But when it comes to building applications, in this frenzy most believe good looks are essential if they are going to be taken seriously. Thus they spend a fortune refining, tuning, styling and building unnecessary user interface features, which is equivalent to the bookkeeper balancing the last penny. Thus they need 20 people when really 1, 2 or 3 people would have been sufficient to prove the concept.

So is it possible to prove a concept with absolutely NO fancy graphics and only the minimum core features, with a team of 1-2 and bootstrap the concept through to proving it is capable of viral growth?

Put your money where your mouth is

There is no better way to prove a point than by conducting the experiment yourself and recording the results. Talk is cheap after all. My latest application adheres to the principles I have been espousing. In the beginning I wanted to have no graphics whatsoever, not even a logo but that was one step too far for some people.

In it’s current state the concept is proven, traffic growth is rapidly rising, it has been featured on TC and many other blogs, it has top positions in the SERPs for leading terms, and there are a handful of third parties interested in acquiring it. That’s sure seems like proof to me.

Yet there are still no more than a handful of images, the development team consisted of just me, it was about 1 years work with minimal investment and as a result the likelihood that it shall be a financial success is pretty high because it was designed with elegance in mind.

Self Indulgence

It seems to me that many startups in this latest round have their priorities all mixed up, rather than proving the concept, they are focused on impressing or wowing investors. But without traffic, without proof that the concept has legs, investors wont be impressed (I suspect), and you will likely run out of cash before you have got it anywhere near a beta let-alone proof of concept.