Simplicity with Kevin Finn
Kevin Finn | Graphic Designer thesumof.com.au
Keeping things simple sounds so easy. But it’s not. It’s incredibly difficult to achieve successfully, and it can be even harder to maintain over the long-term. Oftentimes, simplicity is dismissed as being obvious. We assess the outcome and judge the results as something a child could do, equating ‘simplicity’ with ‘easy’. But that undervalues simplicity and overlooks the process.
The very nature of simplicity means someone has literally removed complexity. They have made things clearer, smoother and/or more intuitive on your behalf. That means the first step in achieving simplicity is understanding the complexity surrounding a specific task, problem or experience, as well as assessing the context in which it exists. It means first making sense of the mess. Only then are we in a position to design a simpler solution deliberately, and with intelligence.
Simplicity versus Simplistic
But simplicity doesn’t mean stripping things down to their bare essentials. It doesn’t mean removing a character or omitting interesting aspects. It means making things easier to access or absorb. I can’t imagine anyone saying: “I’d really prefer if this was more difficult to understand, or more complex to interact with”. Nor can I imagine someone saying: “I really wish this was more boring and far less interesting.” So, keeping things simple is a balancing act between reducing friction, while maintaining or increasing positive experiences.
The notion that simplicity courts the lowest common denominator in an attempt to dumb things down is misunderstanding of the underlying intent. It’s the difference between being simple and being simplistic. The crossword is a complex puzzle made incredibly simple. It’s a concept pretty much anyone can grasp. But within that simple construct the actual experience can be either dumb, easy, difficult or near impossible, depending on the content (the words, the hints and the size of the crossword, etc). It’s a simple set of rules, applied to a simple framework, but which can be designed in multiple ways to foster any number of experiences; a perfect interaction between complexity and simplicity.
The value of simplicity
In organisations, people often intentionally hide in complexity, where it’s easier to avoid accountability and responsibility. For some, this is a genuine reason to maintain and sustain complexity. Simplicity can be far too transparent. Usually, the bigger the organisation, the more complex they become—or at least the conditions for complexity to thrive increases. In these instances, the value of simplicity can be profound.
Culturally customers are put off by complexity. If something is difficult to use, to engage with, or to understand, we tend to react negatively. Increasingly, our collective intolerance for complexity compels us to seek alternative options—and there is now an abundance of options available to us in most sectors, so we will quickly explore them when we are confronted with complexity. For the most part, customers don’t want to invest time trying to figure things out. Adding insult to injury, it gets more frustrating when customers do persevere with complex experiences and then realise there was a better, easier and simpler way the company could have approached the product or service. This forms negative perceptions about the business, which can have a direct—and immediate—impact on their bottom line.
Equally, monopolies often ignore the effects of complexity—until an alternative (competitor) presents itself and makes things simpler for customers. This can be a significant threat to the business. But at that point, it might be too late for the cumbersome monopoly to consider how they might simplify things and add more value.
Our lives have gotten faster. The world is getting more complex. Because of this, simplicity is in high demand, which is ironic considering it’s also often undervalued. From Uber’s app to the iPhone’s interface, intuitive and simple experiences become a breath of fresh air when compared to the alternative. This becomes clear when we have to navigate a complex telephone customer service platform, or when we have to figure out a complex range of products, or when we have to make sense of any confusing system. In these instances, we have to do the hard work. We have to figure things out. The company or business hasn’t done this on our behalf. It hasn’t valued the importance of simplicity in a customer’s life. So we might take our limited time, attention and funds to a more simpler option elsewhere. In short, simplicity is a high-value offer.
The downside of simplicity
But there are downsides. When a certain kind of simplicity has been adopted successfully it can become the default for an entire sector (from website templates to airports)..The result can be seen as dull, a mono-culture—or worse; beige and uninteresting. But in those cases, simplicity has been adopted in a lazy way under the guise of efficiency. This is a one-size-fits-all mentality. But simplicity is not at fault here. A lack of imagination is.
Sometimes pursuing simplicity can also be seen as a risky endeavor. For example, in today’s society businesses regularly offer an abundance of choice. While this is good in theory, it can take a toll on resources and confuse customers. On his return to Apple Steve Jobs’ famous decision to remove most of their product line and to focus on “a few products, but really well”, was seen as a huge risk in an environment where businesses want to appeal to as many people—with as many different options—as possible. Of course, choice is a great benefit to businesses and customers alike, but the important factor here is to ensure simplicity provides the necessary framework to increase efficiency, to better leverage resources and to avoid customer paralysis or confusion.
Design and simplicity
From an aesthetic point of view, simplicity can be criticised as lacking flair or individuality. It is argued that Modernism, reductionism, and minimalism have homogenised design into a global, universal language that has lost its dynamism and given way to establishing a visual mono-culture. While these movements employ elements of simplicity, simplicity itself is not at fault. Simplicity must be considered as it applies to the smallest things (like crosswords) to the largest (like cities), not just as a dogmatic aesthetic approach. Simplicity itself is a tool, a process, and an outcome. It’s a specific mindset applied to problem-solving.
In most cases, the design process begins with complexity: the chaos of information, research, opinions, requirements, organisational politics, agendas, ambitions, and fears, among others things. This is usually compounded by a designer’s potential ignorance of the business, sector or situation in question. The designer has to wade through this complexity before being in a position to identify a solution that will meet all the requirements and be easy (or easier) to communicate and deliver. Simplification is key because providing a complex solution isn’t progress. Most communications designers seek to achieve elegant clarity, and the process they employ is one of simplifying the complex.
So, simplicity doesn’t mean linear, lowest common denominator, or removal of important information or steps. It means breaking down the elements across a number of constantly moving parts and within context. It means understanding all this in order to retain the essentials and the prompts to help better experiences, interaction and use. It means promoting greater imagination, rather than streamlining it. And it means ensuring safeguards are in place to mitigate complexity creeping back in, supported by feedback loops to constantly assess changing circumstances and contexts. Essentially, simplicity—in all its applications—is one of the purest forms of communication.
In the best cases, simplicity leads to efficiency; efficiency leads to productivity; productivity is the result of clarity, and clarity is achieved through simplicity. It’s a deliberately closed loop model. But even with safeguards in place to promote simplicity over the long-term, it’s always worth remembering to: Keep it simple—and after that, keep it simple.