The Dichotomy of "Simple"

The word “simple” has varied meanings. This is certainly common in the English language, but the broad definition of the word can create confusion within the design community. This is not helped by the word’s influence and pervasiveness in the designer lexicon. However, the most challenging aspect is that “simple” can often have opposing, conflicting characteristics, creating situations where a design can simultaneously be simple and not simple depending on one’s point of view.

Let’s take an example of two cameras made in the late 1970’s—the Konica C35 AF and the Leica M4.

The Konica C35 AF was the world’s first point-and-shoot camera.

This camera removed one of the core tasks associated with photography and, in doing so, made the process of taking a photo as easy as pressing a button. Simple.

The Lecia M4 was the latest model of Leica’s beloved M Series rangefinders.

The camera akin to a blank canvas. The essential controls are supplied and are presented efficiently, removing any impediment between photographer and subject. Simple.

On the surface, the Lecia M4 appears much more complex. Its counterpart contains no focusing ring, no aperture ring, no shutter or speed dial. Through the years, as the M rangefinder remained almost fixed in time, the “simplicity” of future point-and-shoots only increased (with features such as auto-advance, auto flash, auto-loading, etc.). However, if you ever asked a person who has used a Leica, they would likely extoll its simplicity.

Opposing Definitions

The two examples of simplicity above could not be at greater odds with each other. One improves the experience by doing more for the user, the other improves the experience by doing less. One becomes an adjunct to performing a task, the other a conduit for performing a task. Therefore, hearing the phrase, “We want to make this product simple” can mean two very different things to different people. The challenge is knowing what type of simple is right for the people/context being designed for.

Each of these manifestations of simple has its time and place. Making a complex task easy to complete can have a sense of magic. In addition, stripping a product to its bare minimum can often provide an unrivaled elegance. However, the magic of easy ultimately wears off and the elegance of spartan design is not accessible to the unfamiliar. The approachable and unintimidating nature of easy-to-use tools can democratize a craft or trade. These tools have the opportunity to introduce countless people to an otherwise unobtainable subject. But their purpose for existing should be to prepare people for tools that expect and reward greater skill. Far too often though, these easy products act as a perpetual crutch.

Designers tend to have a bias towards one type of “simple”. I am biased towards the Leica kind of simple—I want to hand over more control to users at the risk of a greater cognitive overhead. This approach is not always appropriate, especially for the marketability of consumer-focused products. However, it is my opinion that the Platonic form of simplicity is much more in line with object as conduit than object as adjunct. When acting as a conduit the tool is completely dependent on its operator and creates a more fulfilling relationship with the object. The tools that strip our ability or incentive to learn, grow and (at times) fail strips us of some of our most sacred human experiences.

You will get no argument from me of simplicity’s virtues. However, simplicity can have at least two different definitions and they are not always equal in value. Before you embark on the task of designing a simple solution, it may be worth the time to determine what that actually means to you.

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