Chapter 3. Simple

Tame complex situations

AT THE BEGINNING OF A DESIGN PROJECT, it’s common for everyone involved to hope that the outcome will be “simple,” but rarely are they speaking the same language. Simplicity is a concept that people champion as a goal, but they usually have trouble describing what they mean. Often they will point to other products as oblique examples, as simplicity is easier to recognize in use. In the early years of the 21st century, businesses often strove to be the “iPod of” their category, an oblique analogy for simplicity or innovation. Apple is often credited as understanding simplicity, leading many companies to copy its clean aesthetic. But as Apple’s Jonathan Ive puts it, “simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that’s a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product.”[52] In other words, simplicity can’t be copied because it’s specific to the nature and context of the problem.

Simplicity is often conflated with minimalism, where the goal is to remove as much as possible. IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown has described minimalism as a “reaction to complexity whereas simplicity relies on an understanding of the complex.”[53] Minimalism can be beautiful, but it is often a stylistic choice, a surface treatment with a clean appearance at the expense of confusion or frustration in use. Minimalism adopts the notion that “less is more,” but these kinds of pithy maxims can lead designers astray, ...

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