We often prefer complex solutions to simple ones, obscure marketing slang instead of clear explanations, multi-step implementation instead of more direct execution. Complexity gives products an aura of authority, which marketers use to add weight and demonstrate expertise.
Complex processes delay decision-making, creating the illusion of productivity. Why don’t people understand the power of simplicity? And how can simplicity and complexity be balanced?
When there is nothing to take away
Simple thinking leads to safer plans, better communication and easier execution. The power of simplicity has been evident throughout history, and strategists and artists have strived for it:
- Keep it simple, stupid. The KISS principle, supposedly invented by aircraft designer Kelly Johnson, makes simplicity a key design goal, arguing that most systems work better if they stay simple. Kelly Johnson once brought a team of design engineers several tools with a challenge: The average mechanic in the field should be able to fix the jet they were designing using only these tools. That is, the design should be simple to the point of idiocy;
- Less is more. The famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who is considered one of the pioneers of modernist architecture, constantly repeated this aphorism: Less is more. He sought to arrange the necessary components of a building so as to give the impression of extreme simplicity, sometimes repurposing some elements to serve more than one purpose;
- Simplify and then add lightness. One of the leaders of the minimalist movement, Lotus Cars founder Colin Chapman encouraged his designers to “simplify and then add lightness.” The creator of the world’s first monocoque race car with a one-piece aluminum sheet chassis, Colin Chapman sought to use as few parts as possible in his cars. Today, many product designers still use the magic of subtraction to innovate.
In literature, too, the power of simplicity applies. When trying to solve a crime, the most famous detective believes that “the simplest explanation is often the most plausible. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry also wrote: “It seems that perfection is achieved not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing to take away”.
The charm of complexity
Despite the benefits of simplicity, we still tend to overcomplicate our solutions. The Dutch systems scientist Edsger Weibe Dijkstra, considered by many to be a pioneer of computer science, once said:
“Simplicity is a great virtue, but it takes hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And what’s worse: complexity sells better.”
Marketers are well aware of the appeal of complexity and use our biases to make products seem more complex and brands seem more authoritative. Slang is used to impress rather than inform consumers.
Let’s read something: “Kérastase Resistance Bain Force Architecte” using the Vita-Ciment® complex is a strengthening shampoo specifically designed to cleanse and nourish damaged hair in stages 1-2″ or “Enriched with amino acids”, wheat protein derivatives and ceramide R, it smooths and strengthens hair, creating an even surface and a water resistant layer that protects hair from moisture. Do you understand what this says? Most people don’t. In any case, both shampoos are quite popular.
We attribute complexity to expert knowledge, innovation and credibility. Ironically, we often trust products described in such a complex way more than we trust a simple easy-to-understand explanation. But complexity is not always dust in our eyes. In fact, a little complexity can work wonders when balanced by simplicity.
Complexity is a moving target
As we have seen, simplicity can lead to innovative thinking and improve decision-making, while complexity is often used to impress rather than help. We all fall prey easily to a preconceived notion of complexity. That doesn’t mean we need to eradicate all complexity from our lives. Complex experiences are enriching and exciting.
In Living with Complexity, Professor Donald Arthur Norman wrote, “We need complexity, even if we crave simplicity. A little complexity is desirable. When things are too simple, they seem boring and uninteresting. Psychologists say that people prefer an average level of complexity: too easy and we are bored, too difficult and we are discouraged. Moreover, the ideal level of difficulty is a moving target, because the more we become experts at anything, the more difficulty we prefer.”
Rather than getting rid of complexity altogether, we need to realize how to manage it in life, work and creative projects. Watching a complex movie, enjoying a complex flavor of tea, or learning about a complex topic can all provide rich experiences. On the other hand, a project plan that is too complex can lead to mistakes and hide fundamental flaws.
Finding the right balance is a delicate task. Ask yourself: does this level of difficulty add to the experience or overcomplicate it? What can be removed without distorting the essence of the experience? Is the complexity in this particular case a feature or a bug? If you’re working on a project, ask your teammates and users: is it too complicated and confusing? Or is it too simple and boring? Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. And, paradoxically, it requires complex questions to achieve it.