10stripe's design philosophy
by Alex Freeman
This is a description of the design philosophy that underlies 10stripe and the various and sundry projects related to it. We don't do all that much navel-gazing... but here is some.
At first blush, this may seem like a completely superfluous page. It isn't as if there are throngs of people looking to dissect our way of doing things. We're not Apple, for instance.
Mostly, this page exists for me. It exists so that I have a written benchmark against which I can compare the site's progress. 10stripe is a project that has evolved massively over the years, sometimes in ways that were completely unexpected. I have had the good fortune of being at the helm through it all. But one of the things I have always struggled to do is to pursue a consistent, clear vision. The core ideas of that vision have never changed, but the way they are implemented certainly has.
This page is also for other people. Be they potential contributors, curious readers, or just passers-by, there is hopefully something here they will find interesting. The design philosophy of 10stripe is not an especially earth-shattering one, but I like to think it is a pretty good one. It also provides a lot of insight into how the site is run and what keeps it going.
I suppose it is worth pointing out now that this page has already violated one of the major points of the project's philosophy, with this long-winded introduction. Not to worry, the philosophy has a "stretch clause" for just such cases.
Simpler is usually better.
That being the case, this page should have been nothing but the above sentence, right? Well, not exactly.
"Usually" is a really powerful word in this case. And the reason this page is more than a sentence, and in fact the reason most pages on the site are not massively shorter, is because of a critical little thing called context. The above sentence is a pretty good reduction of the philosophy into its minimal form. But without the context of what it really means, and why the site follows such a philosophy, it isn't all that valuable. Just a slogan to throw on a coffee mug or something.
10stripe's philosophy is built on a few core ideas, which for simplicity's sake (and because it makes an easy-to-grasp image) we will call Pillars.
Text should not assume that all readers have advanced degrees in the topic. Visual design should not be stuffed with dozens of flashing graphics. Less is more.
As I write this, far and away the most popular content on 10stripe is the "Big Guides" series. The overarching goal of the Big Guides is to take a great deal of information from disparate sources and simplify it. That is, honestly, all they do. They do it with a touch of humor and usually better organization than the sources they rely on, but really that's it. There is no voodoo in the Big Guide format.
One of the major goals of the 10stripe visual layout is to have less stuff. A handful of links, a logo, and content. Many sites have a lot more. They have huge shiny graphics, dozens of links to other pages, links to other sections, and links to other sites they like. We don't. Tom's Hardware, through their last several redesigns, have committed pretty fully to that way of doing things. And it seems to work well enough for them (see Pillar 2).
None of this is meant to imply that everything should be simplified to the very extreme. Content is not written in the style of, say, the Simple English Wikipedia. The layout of the page is not as stripped-down as Use It. One of the keys to good, simple design is knowing how simple to go, for the audience you have.
As we have seen, 10stripe is not Tom's Hardware. It isn't Use It. It isn't a lot of things.
Throwing a million links on the front page might well improve traffic. Redesigning the site in bright green might attract new demographics. But I don't care.
No decision about 10stripe has ever been justified with "everyone else is doing it". Sometimes that means not doing things that some people might like. A number of neat ideas have been killed (by me) not because they were bad, but because they went against what I believe to be the spirit of the site. A lot of ideas died or were reconfigured because I wanted to do them server-side rather than client side; not because doing things client-side is evil, but because it isn't the "10stripe way".
Do what works. Write what people want to read.
The writing style of 10stripe owes a great deal to Dan's Data (for treating technology with both depth and humor), Ars Technica (for proving that talking about technical topics with technical language really can work), The Economist (for proving that smart writing can be enjoyable to read), and many others. If your goal is to learn to mimic the style of this site, those are the publications I would suggest you start reading. Even if that is not your goal, those are the publications I would suggest you start reading. Made to Stick is also an excellent (and fairly quick) read.
The visual style of the site comes from a lot of sources, but perhaps most critically from Google. The success of Google's stripped-bare interface (which graphic designers loathe, and engineers cheer) in conquering bloated-beyond-all-reason competitors like Yahoo was proof positive that simple can work on the web. Opera was also a major influence, particularly a very heavily reduced setup that I have personally used for a few years now.
The way data is presented is patterned largely on The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, one of the best books I have ever read. The overall visual design of the site is something of an extension of Tufte's ideas about data ink, and many of the things written for the site echo the notion of working toward very high information density. It must be said, though, that 10stripe never targets the extremes that Tufte might advocate.
This particular page was inspired in part by a recent reading of the Zen of Palm.
Whatever you were looking for, I sincerely hope you have found it.