Simon Collison: A Philosophy of Restraint

Orde Saunders' avatarUpdated: Published: by Orde Saunders

Simon Collison (@colly) was speaking at Refresh Edinburgh, these are my notes from his talk.

A Philosophy of Restraint

Restraint and economy in websites to improve dialogue with users.

Why call it a philosophy?

We should know how and why we create and who we create for.
Not a set of hard and fast rules.
Some things taken for granted - standards, accessibility, SEO &c.
Should encourage strengthening systems we have in place.

Design is messy

Design as Art Bruno Munari
We learn techniques.
Curiosity drives designers to continually improve.
Humans are involved all the way through - we design to communicate, and we seek emotive responses.
Everything we put on a page has to have a purpose - good designers will justify the decorative.

A design aesthetic?

Not selling an aesthetic or a formula.
"Minimal, lots of white space...
and clean. Right?" What do these words mean?
Simplicity requires understanding of what can be left out.

We don't design web pages - we design systems.
Spend time with things when they are done.
A system allows you to make quick decisions.
When we understand a system we know when to break the system.

A system makes things easier to understand

  • build a foundation for complexity
  • holistic approach for all projects
  • project specific system
  • invest time in flexible pattern libraries
  • prepare for all eventualities

Embrace constraints

having complete freedom is possibly the worst way to start a project.
Increase constraint and you create an ordered system; do that inappropriately and you create the conditions for catastrophic failure; remove constraint and the system is chaotic... The 5cs of complexity - Dave Snowden

  • make sense of the constraints you are given
  • look for constraints you can apply

Exercising restraint

Responding to the problem in the simplest way possible.
Apply identity to core elements, throw away the rest.
Think twice about fakery of non-web items on the web.
Good designers make use of the vernacular - but only in the right place.

  • immerse yourself in the project
  • design responses first, not a website
  • discover what can be left to once side [iteration]
  • avoid misplaced vernacular

Simplicity and complexity

Simplicity doesn't have to be simple.
Complex can be elegant and beautiful.
Simple is for the user to determine, will not be the same for everyone...
Compare London overground and underground maps with New York underground and overground maps.
Unleash complexity in orchestrated phases and increase power gradually based on understanding.

  • good systems bear weight
  • embrace new methods for organising
  • find simplicity
  • don't be afraid of existing approaches


Don't keep distracting users.
Don't get distracted by new tools.
Keep your pattern library consistent.
Trace layouts and colours in blocks to see the underlying patterns.

  • use hierarchy
  • reduce distractions

Focus and context

Task driven, focused and broken down into small chunks for easy understanding.
A framework gets things done quickly and maintains focus.
Allow users to focus.
Don't compromise key areas.


Audit your own work - step away, go back and revisit.
Audit can prevent failures and shine new light on earlier work.
Add breathing space to your schedule.
Be honest about shortcomings.
Never be afraid to rethink and rework.


Don't launch.
Sit with your work and think about it.
Seek valued opinion and feedback.
Find things to remove.
Launch only when you are ready.

Final thought

Reduction is as big a tool as Photoshop.

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