Management books, marketing blogs, podcasts and tweets are urging us to simplify the message, simplify the product, and simplify our lives.
But something is amiss, because none of us want to give up our smartphones, global travel or touch-free payments, all of which require incredible complexity to make happen.
So how can we resolve this apparent tension?
Thankfully, we can find a path forward by better understanding the word simple. Let’s defer to the late Steve Jobs to explain:
“When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop.
“But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem — and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works. That’s what we wanted to do with Mac.” Steve Jobs, Insanely Great
So you start with a simple before complexity, which we like to call a naive simple. That’s the simple that leads to quotes like this:
“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” H.L. Mencken
This is the simple where you try and follow simple IKEA instructions, or change that simple tap washer — and you feel like Simple Simon.
Then as you start trying to solve the real problems, you build to complexity, which is where all the patches and hacks and elaborate solutions fight for your attention. This is the fighter-jet cockpit or the 80-page instruction manual, where you must stop your life for a moment just to understand what’s going on. When you leave things here, they remain complicated.
“Clutter is the official language used by corporations to hide their mistakes.” William Zinsser
And then, with enough persistence, you push through to the simple that comes after complicated, where your simple takes on an elegance. This is the simple where you’ve used insight and expertise to give the appearance of simplicity, but it has a deep capability and relevance that underpins it.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery
An iPhone is anything but simple, yet it has the appearance of simple. Increasingly complex layers remain hidden, until you need them. Organization, hierarchy, patterns and intuitive approaches all help you make sense of only the bits that are relevant at each moment. This is the simple that requires a deep understanding, and it’s much harder to do.
So as you navigate these different types of simple, it’s useful to keep a North Star in mind. For us, that North Star comes from John Maeda, who wrote an entire book about simplicity, and then summarised it with one law:
“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”
Find out more about the design behind a Bellroy wallet.