The Fight for Simplicity

I spoke to simplicity before, but lately it has become a bit of a mantra of mine, accosted from all sides, it seems, by complexity. I’ve made some observations:

  • Complexity is a powerful tool to disguise ignorance; in fact, complexity can transform ignorance into brilliance in the eyes of your foolhardy audience. “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” Complexity engenders confusion, and people would rather agree with absurdity than appear confused and thus ignorant. This is closely related to the wisdom of crowds.

  • Similarly, complexity can overwhelm our beauty sensors. Human brains will almost always confuse the novel for the beautiful, so we pile on the novelties in attempts to convey beauty. It’s not until we have a steaming pile that we realize that none of those things were beautiful.

  • Alpha geeks and entrepreneurs (often) love complexity. It’s the reason they are in the business. Simple solutions bore them. They are going to be drawn towards the more complex solution without consideration of alternatives. (By “complex solution” I don’t necessarily mean in regards to technical details.) You want to work with the smartest people possible, of course, and it may not always be as obvious as the famous unwashed Linux administrator who refuses to work with anyone else in the company, but there is a reason there has been a lot of work around new models for successful thinking, pushback on being overly clever, a movement for building less.

These aren’t postures we adopt knowingly. It’s not like anyone cognitively enjoys complexity or clutter. We’re not all striving to be collectors. We inch our way into it, one user interface element or one line of code at a time. And some of those elements and lines cannot be avoided. But when they can be, they should be.

In the almost two months since I started this post, i’ve been collecting links that relate to simplicity, most within the realm of web design and user interface design, as that is an area I read the most about: