It’s What You Leave Out

September, 2013

Madison, WI is a great Midwestern city. It’s my home town. I love it dearly. For whatever reason, though, it sits firmly in that space that’s considered flyover country by way too many people. Why? I have no idea. It’s a beautiful city. Its downtown is flanked by two picturesque lakes. It’s clean, friendly, convenient, and darling. Much of the University of Wisconsin is located there—a beautiful campus that holds a gorgeous state capital building.

One of the more interesting things about the layout of my hometown is a simple rule the city planners made around 1915: No building can be taller than the base of the pillars surrounding the capital building’s dome—that’s only 190 feet. 1

Madison, WI Photo by Richard Hurd

This has created a skyline unlike any other. Most American cities just don’t look like that.

It’s not for lack of desire for skyscrapers—Madison is home to all sorts of companies that would love to have their logo grace the top of a 100-story building. In fact, plans for high-rise developments are regularly denied by city regulators. Instead, because of this conscious decision, we see the capital remain illuminated across the waters of Lake Monona and Mendota. An entire city’s charm is in its restraint—All because of the foresight and discipline of city lawmakers at the turn of the last century.

I lied though. I actually grew up in Middleton, WI, a western suburb. And actually, just a little bit outside of that in a subdivision. My family had a house on a hill surrounded by cornfields and mature oak trees. Through those trees from the front yard you could see the flickering of the city lights, the broadcast towers, the stop lights if you squinted. If you let your eye wander along the horizon, you’d see it—The capital. A tiny white light shining above everything else. You can see it for miles. Even from there it was breathtaking—a skyline defined by what it isn’t.

It’s what you leave out.

This is one of my favorite scenes from the movie Almost Famous. This is taken from the Untitled director’s cut, which, ironically, was removed from the theatrical release of the movie. Favorite scene or not, it doesn’t further the plot.

“It’s not what you put into it. It’s what you leave out… Yeah, that’s rock n’ roll.”

These principles can apply to product design. Take iA Writer, for example. It’s a brilliant word processor. But it’s just that, a word processor. It doesn’t allow you to choose your typeface. I haven’t wasted any time embedding 3D lettering or clipart. It barely has any user interface at all. It has a single blinking blue cursor.

Blink

That’s it. That’s the application’s biggest feature. It processes words. It has other subtle features like character and word counts and estimated reading time. While similar applications have fallen into the trap of solving layout problems, each of iA Writer’s very limited features further the act of writing. The fewer problems you solve, the better. Avoid the traps at all cost. Just like editing a movie, if your feature (even one of your favorites) doesn’t support your product’s main goal, kill it.

I love iA Writer. And like Madison, I love it for its restraint, its beauty. Its charm. Its simplicity. A single high-rise building in Madison would ruin a century’s worth of restraint.

It’s what you leave out.

Parts of this have appeared in John McPhee’s piece for The New Yorker, “Omission.”


Aaron Shekey

I’m a product designer and musician in Minneapolis, MN. I work on Hum. I lead a band called The Usual Things. I’ve worked at GitHub and Adobe.