Product designers should take a closer look at Teletext, before designing their next product.
I’m a daily user and a big fan of Teletext, the television-first information retrieval service developed in the UK in the early 1970s. It transmits text and simple graphics, offering services such as weather forecasts, TV schedules, and news updates. It was a veritable Internet before the Internet, delivered with the simplicity that only a 40x24 grid of characters can provide.
As we design products for B2B software startups, one thing I try to be mindful of is that beautiful aesthetics are tools to solve problems more efficiently and not the end product themselves.
Creativity under Constraint: The Lesson from Teletext (and Mario)
The beauty of Teletext lies in the creative solutions it brought forth in the face of stark limitations. It taught us that when resources are scarce, we must be discerning, considerate, and ingenious in our design choices.
This art of creativity under constraint is nothing new. Take, for instance, the design of the legendary Mario from the iconic Nintendo video game. His character design, from his mustache to his overalls, was heavily influenced by the technical and color limitations of the time. The mustache was added to avoid drawing a mouth in a small sprite. The cap was to prevent the need for animating hair. Overalls helped distinguish his arm movements. The constraints, in this case, fostered a memorable character design that has stood the test of time.
Abundance: The Double-Edged Sword
Today, we have the luxury of abundance — an abundance of memory, storage, and processing power. We can render a million polygons on screen, stream videos in 4K, and design user interfaces that are rich and dynamic. But this abundance is a double-edged sword. It tempts us into complacency, into the mistaken belief that we can include everything just because we can. The result? User interfaces that are overloaded and convoluted. Designs that prioritize aesthetics over functionality.
Let’s take a step back here. Isn’t design supposed to be about problem-solving? Isn’t the ultimate goal to create solutions that are efficient, intuitive, and satisfying to use?
The Call for Design Minimalism
In this era of design abundance, we need to take inspiration from our past — from things like Teletext and Super Mario. We need to rediscover the art of creativity under constraint.
Not that we need to artificially limit our technical resources. Instead, we should enforce conceptual constraints on our designs. We should be careful and deliberate about what we include in our designs, just as we would if we were working with limited resources. In other words, we need to adopt a mindset of design minimalism.
Design minimalism isn’t about making things bare and devoid of character. It’s about making each element count. It’s about prioritizing functionality and usability over visual fluff. It’s about distilling a design down to its essence, stripping away the superfluous until only what’s truly necessary remains.
When we approach design with a minimalist mindset, we can create user interfaces that are not just beautiful, but also intuitive, efficient, and satisfying to use. We can bring back the joy of simplicity and elegance that characterized the user interfaces of the past. We can make our designs less about us and our technical prowess, and more about the users and their needs.
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