Simplicity is Not the Definition
4 May 2013
Something about the word simplify has begun to bother me recently. It hasn't got anything to do with the concept itself. Nay, we designers hold this word at a level akin to worship. What is unnerving to me is the tendency of many designers to equate the word simplify with design.
Case in point: while brainstorming a definition for information design in a group of my peers, the most recited answer was easily: gathering data, and presenting it simply. That's the reflex answer.
I didn't win many hearts by arguing my point that day, but design is about finding a message, and devising a way to deliver it. Simplicity is not the definition of design, but an approach to design.
Sometimes, the complexity of a problem is the message you want to deliver. You wouldn't want your audience to get the impression that problems like starvation, genocide, poverty, obesity or terrorism are easy to solve. Maybe leaving them speechless and overwhelmed is more stimulating.
I recently watched a fascinating TED talk by Dan Ariely. He told an amusing story about the evolution of cake mixes. The first ones to market were a just-add-water solution. But they were a flop. It's not because they didn't taste good, and it's not because people didn't value convenience. Because they were so quick and easy, people felt no ownership, and were therefore ashamed to serve them to guests. As soon as they removed the eggs and milk from the batter, they sold like hotcakes — yeah.
It is repetitive and mundane chores that benefit most from quick, painless, and fool-proof interfaces. But maybe our more creative projects deserve to be dwelt on a bit longer. They may be more successful with a little less simplicity. The process of discovery might just bring more satisfaction to your users than efficiency and simplicity would.