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Edward Tufte in the book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information states, more or less, that ink is expensive. Any ink which is not used to actually convey information is chartjunk and it will only detract from conveying information. When looking at displays of data (say charts and the like) this is abundantly obvious.

I would guess that the same applies to user interfaces -- I can think of a lot of what Apple has done as more or less following it, but I was wondering if there is a generalized principal which can be said of UI design.

Does such a principle exist? How would it be stated in the UI context?

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Ink isn't expensive though - would this be better phrased as "treat ink as expensive"? –  e100 Aug 26 '11 at 12:16
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If you're talking about charts in particular remember that the high-data-ink ratio prized by info-geeks is not necessarily shared among normal users. Studies have found that good "chart junk" helps users understand what's going on in a chart. dl.acm.org/… –  Ben Brocka Aug 26 '11 at 13:32
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4 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

If you've never seen the documentary Objectified, I highly recommend that you do because the answer is there.

Jonathan Ive from Apple says something about how if a thing is not needed, it should not be seen. He was specifically talking about an indicator light on the MacBook Air that you wouldn't even know existed until it lit up, but the same can be said for any UI element. But that's not a new idea, and it's essentially what Tufte is talking about.

Dieter Rams is also interviewed in the film. His principals of design hold answers for you as well. The key principal for this conversation is "Good design is as little design as possible." It's true for graphs, charts, UIs, shopping carts, pens...whatever. Or, you're done when you can't take any more away.

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I would not state it any other way just because the medium is different. Ok, so in an UI we don't really use ink, but we use the electronic equivaluent.

The problem there is that the electronic equivalent is the same for both the inked and non-inked part: pixels. Trying to describe the difference gets complicated quickly as the electronic nature of an UI allows for things that are a bit harder in print (light text on a dark background).

So I'd say stick with the "Ink is expensive" as it conveys the message very well and is easily understood and transferred to other media by just about everybody.

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To my mind, the same applies online, maybe expresses as "pixels are expensive". The argument that pixels that are not used to convey information are a waste of space seems quite persuasive.

Of course, sometimes pixels are used to convey information in odd ways. Some are to enhance the affordances of "objects". Some are to define other areas - white space is sometimes the right answer. But each of the objects on a web page or form should be able to justify its presence, its size, its colouring - everything about it. If it cannot, it needs to be re-thought out.

Practically, of course, this is not always what is done. In the same way that to take Tuftes ideas and apply every one every time in printed material takes a lot of time and effort. But they are still good principles and ideas to work towards.

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The problem with pixels is that they are more like the paper than the ink... –  Marjan Venema Aug 26 '11 at 8:28
    
I agree - I was just struggling for the right word. The principles are the same however - if it is not needed to convey information, it should not be there. And, of course, the paper also expresses information, by the lack of ink on it. So every pixel is precious. –  Schroedingers Cat Aug 26 '11 at 13:19
    
Absolutely. I wasn't arguing with what you said, just with the analogy... –  Marjan Venema Aug 26 '11 at 14:06
    
Saying "every pixel is precious" makes me want to break into song... –  afrazier Feb 3 '12 at 15:15
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I think its a great concept. The things to bear in mind is that not only do extra design elements waste 'ink', resources and development time, they also compete with useful areas of the interface, create interference, cause distraction and increase cognitive burden on the user...

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