Simple? Enough. Design to make people smarter, not more simple.

Simplicity was something we were taught from the get go as designers, a seemingly blanket solution to all of the world’s problems, a buzz word for sure, and one that’s quite confidently strutted through the industry with not so much as an unfavouring eyelid batted.

Personally however, the word makes me uneasy and the methodology, perhaps even more so. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the meaning. To describe someone as simple, is to imply that they have inadequate intelligence and an inability to cope with anything complex or that involves mental effort. Now, this is a very harsh definition of the word, and one that I shied away from at first because I do not entirely believe that it is necessarily a fair representation of the word as we use it today. A Google search for example gives the following definitions:

  1. “easily understood or done; presenting no difficulty”.
  2. “plain, basic, or uncomplicated in form, nature, or design; without much decoration or ornamentation”.
  3. “composed of a single element; not compound”.
  4. And finally more aligned to our original meaning, “of very low intelligence”.

The first definition given is an adjective descriptive of a person or living creature. The remaining definitions, sans number four of course, describe tasks, processes, and inanimate products, a solid vote of confidence for the how and why of Simple’s acceptance and induction into the industry and it’s illustrious term ever since.

My gut still hates the word though, maybe it’s because I can’t shake the ring of words like “basic, inadequate, unable, low intelligence” and how we’re more than happily ignoring the word’s negative connotations towards human beings. Then again, maybe I’m just stubborn.

Unfortunately though, simple is not a word that I aspire towards.

My doubt is likely more related to the method and less to the word, but it’s a constant conflict for me, one that the more I think about and the more I design and interact with problems, the more I throw the middle finger to it when it gets flung my way — it’s become the accepted path of least resistance and a choice that is often ironically simple in it’s selection, nothing more than second nature, a household name, often blurted out and seldom thought out — it’s gravy to the pitch.

I think it’s safe to call it one of, if not the most common word in the design industry, muttered and revered by all, esteemed and newbie designers alike, people I look up to, colleagues, clients, lecturers — the lot. We all bought into it at some point because the intentions of it were and are nicely placed, but as a value system, not as well thought out as it should have been — a lot’s been pinned down by it, not least of all a rather large chunk of industry thinking. It’s a poorly chosen word, attached to an unending game of broken telephone. If the method of simplification is subparly taught, misunderstood, and/or worse yet, badly executed — it immediately returns simple to the worst definition of the word. Design is a mammoth industry with enormous sway in the way the world progresses, each and every designer is a moving part and this makes something like the snowball effect a tangible and worry-some idea.

Do we want to become simple, unthinking and disempowered? We will if we always choose simple approaches.

If we want to design for people in a positive and progressive way, we need to stop the thinking that we’re “designing for idiots” — only said in that way because I hear it often — because we’re not. What we are doing is designing for different audiences, with different knowledge, different practices, different values and different social statuses — so, if your answer to a problem is simplicity, it’s probably weak at best and likely hinged on poor leg work when it came to understanding your audience.

Put down simplicity and face the human complexities presented — humans are not simple — so let’s unbox our complexities, interact with them, understand them individually and then as a system, strip away redundancies (if, and only if there are) and design what’s left with a beautifully intricate solution in mind.

People can and should think, discover and learn — so let’s design outcomes with those as intentions, and for a future where people are intelligent, confident thinkers and decision makers regardless of who they are.

Please, the next time you reach for the comfort and surety of a catchy phrase like “simplicity is key”, “less is more”, “keep it simple stupid” — rather don’t. Grab another, maybe even a few others, rotate them, stay on your toes, grapple a bit, sweat, swop out simplicity as a word and better yet as a methodology for solving complex problems, because there’s bound to be more below the surface, there almost always is. “Simple” is a meek and pessimistic way of thinking that we will struggle to come back from — because when snowballs roll…