Minimalism, Simplicity, and our Complex Needs

A few weeks ago, I pinged on my Twitter Stream: “I have been musing if simplicity is overrated. Humans are inherently complex creatures. What do you think”? I got a few responses mostly disagreeing with my thoughts, with many people suggesting that we need simplicity in our overly complex world. However, the responses had not fully convinced me as I had a few nagging thoughts over this Simplicity issue.
I think there is a lot more to this discussion, more than about “just making things simple and easy to use”. Why are some objects simple and easy to use but end up limited and boring? Why are some objects, like the iPhone, simple to use but somehow able to have many layers of more complex functions? Is this what they call simplexity, or an “emerging theory that proposes a possible complementary relationship between complexity and simplicity”? (via Wikipedia)
Recently Tim Brown muses with his colleagues at IDEO that simplicity in form, also called minimalism, is about a surface treatment or style that is “…limited in its usefulness”.

My own view is that minimalism has come to represent a style and as such is limited in its usefulness. It represents a reaction to complexity whereas simplicity relies on an understanding of the complex. This is an important difference. One is about the surface, about the stuff. The other is about our experience and requires a deep appreciation of how things work so as to make them just simple enough.

So we can achieve simplicity when we are able to understand, distill and appreciate the complex enough to extract the simple. The Guru of simplicity: John Maeda, expands on this at his Laws of Simplicity blog. John writes:
muji2
Image from Laws of Simplicity

Muji expresses their point that achieving simplicity is deceptively complex because it is a thoughtful process.

I thought the description of Muji’s process pretty much nails it. But perhaps, the Harvard Business Blog’s Ron Ashkenas says it best by putting simplicity in a commercial context with his post: “Selling Simplicity — Not Just Marketing It“.

The reality is that simplicity is highly appealing in a world that is getting more and more complex — where consumers have too many choices, where technology is constantly evolving, and where the political and economic environment is unpredictable. In the midst of all this instability and change, people want to get back to basics. They want uncomplicated products, straightforward guidance, and things that work quickly and simply the first time, without lots of extra effort.
What is interesting about this phenomenon is that it is in sharp contrast with the thinking of the past few years — which was that consumers wanted unlimited choice so that they could customize their products and services to fit their own unique needs and lifestyles. As such, technology companies pushed for more and more bells and whistles, while other firms drove towards mass customization. The result was a huge array of choices that became almost overwhelming and costly.

The hardest part of simplicity is when a designer or product manager has to take a conscious effort to limit functions or specifications of a product to the most crucial ones. The process of achieving simplicity is highly complex one. I would say it requires a good combination of anthropological studies, analyzing consumer behavior and two secret ingredients, a designer’s problem solving skill and critical insight.
I agree with Ron that now more so than ever, the focus on consumer profiles and segments will continue to be very important in our product development process as it drives designs that are created from a consumer perspective. Better still, it really shows that we are listening to them.
I hope you enjoyed this mini research exercise as much as I did. Looking forward to reading your comments!

8 Comments
  • Adam Brucker

    November 14, 2009 at 2:30 am Reply

    For me, simplicity or minimalism in product design is inherently related (and relative) to the intended use of the object, and not tied to the object itself.
    At the highest level, I believe that the function of design should be to make it easier to live a life in accordance with a set of values (whose / what values is a topic for another time…) and the success / effectiveness of a design should be measured along those lines.
    If adding a “feature” or embellishment to a design makes it more effective, then do it. If removing one works, then do that. Once you’ve hit a point of equilibrium, it’s finished, which is essentially the point that the Maeda / Muji excerpt makes above.

  • Dave Vogler

    November 14, 2009 at 3:18 am Reply

    Great design is invisible, in the sense that it blurs the line between function and form. A well-designed product is intuitive to use and feels “complete”. Form supports and amplifies the function, and vice versa. In other words, it ‘just works’ and doesn’t have any superfluous features.
    By the same token, the product shouln’t be missing any intuitive elements either. Simplicity should not mean ‘incomplete’.
    I think it really depends on the intended use of the product-getting that equilibrium requires diligent research and testing… which is usually a complex process. I’d agree, MUJI hit the nail on the head.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Prajakta Gokhale

    November 14, 2009 at 1:24 pm Reply

    I remember I stumbled upon your blog when I was searching about Zen Principles of design few yrs back! This has always been my topic of interest though as you rightly said simplicity is really complex to acheive.
    There seems to be a huge confusion between things being simple and simplistic! I guess a huge maturity towards the purpose of design would be required,though I have started thinking on that path, I really dont know how to make it work when I design! 🙂
    Also, recently I read a very interesting book by Edward De Bono on ‘simplicity’. Its surely worth a read and lot of thought! ( http://www.amazon.com/Simplicity-Edward-Bono/dp/0140258396 )

  • DT

    November 14, 2009 at 3:03 pm Reply

    Hi Adam, Thanks for your comments. You wrote:

    For me, simplicity or minimalism in product design is inherently related (and relative) to the intended use of the object, and not tied to the object itself.
    At the highest level, I believe that the function of design should be to make it easier to live a life in accordance with a set of values (whose / what values is a topic for another time…) and the success / effectiveness of a design should be measured along those lines.

    If I may add, simplicity of a design should be inspired by the intended use of an object. Just anchoring simplicity with a products its intended use could likely result in a product that has only one function and thus limited in its offering.
    Hi Dave, thanks for sharing, and I agree Simplicity should not mean “incomplete”. That is a good quotable quote if I may say!
    Hey Prajakta, indeed, it is this clarification of this confusion that I am trying to achieve. I hope you befitted from it and thanks for the link! I will check it out the next time I’m at the bookstore.

  • fecsx

    November 14, 2009 at 4:26 pm Reply

    i really like this post and the replies.. this is the search for grail:F
    simplicity assumes understanding user profiles, researching the true interaction, asking whys, evaluating, seeing the whole story, etc.
    to make things easy, simple and beautifully fit.. i think in a way it’s best to learn from nature, where such things have always been there.. apart from biomorph or mimicry, the philosophy of the connectedness is what lies there. when such understanding is achieved in a project thats when the simply cool, right on the spot things can happen.. as if they’ve always been there.

  • kanupriya

    November 15, 2009 at 2:55 pm Reply

    great discussion… love the way u get to knw d answers to so many difficult ques. and that too in such simple ways.. 🙂 thnx

  • DT

    November 15, 2009 at 11:08 pm Reply

    Hi fecsx, that is an interesting angle and makes perfect sense. Thanks for adding to the discussion!
    Hi kanupriya, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

  • Shang Lee

    November 16, 2009 at 9:46 am Reply

    Even in investment, Warren Buffett has a quote on simplicity.
    “There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult.”

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