Simplicity is Awesome
Jazz great Charles Mingus once said something that really gets to the heart of what we do at Elexicon:
“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
I love that. They’re terrific words to not only keep close at hand on your office wall, but to live by as well. At Elexicon, the sentiment can be applied effectively to many aspects of our process, strategies, designs, code and project management.
In this post, I’d like to explore ways we keep the virtues of this philosophy front and center in our work, and how we strive to help our clients incorporate a simplicity-driven approach into their thinking as well. For us, “Simplicity is Awesome.”
This idea is no joke or merely a nice thought. It’s an idea that has been central to some of history’s greatest minds, which I’ll also show. I find it amazing and comforting how many of these giants spoke, often fervently, about the value of simplicity.
I’m not certain of the exact event or circumstance that inspired Mingus’ words, except that the context was musical composition and improvisation. In the most basic terms, it’s harder to create music than it is to make noise.
Applied more broadly to my world, I see him describing an apparent paradox: that simplicity is hard to achieve, requiring a great deal of creativity; and that complexity is easy to achieve, requiring only the commonplace ability to keep “adding stuff” in an attempt to solve a problem. When you spin this concept forward into the context of architecture, design and engineering you recognize it’s harder to create something that’s easy to use, and easy to create something that’s hard to use.
With that in mind, here are some examples of how simplicity drives our strategic and creative thinking, and our design and development processes.
Establish clarity of purpose for both the project and the product. Focus on what is most important. If you have too many priorities then you don’t have any. Stick to the primary goals and objectives and don’t allow superfluous influences and distractions throw you off course.
“It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.”
Henry David Thoreau
Set clear expectations, and keep them concise. Have a clearly communicated plan that is supported by research and has solid buy-in from all stakeholders.
“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Research users and interview customers. People place a high value in a truly simple experience, both in brand loyalty and real dollars spent. A big part of this is delivering an experience they can trust, one that speaks to them in a familiar visual language, relevant taxonomy and consistent voice that they can clearly understand. Inconsistency and complexity, on the other hand, breed distrust and uncertainty.
“Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
Ask “why?” about everything. This is a straightforward but often overlooked practice in both content strategy and UI design.
Why include this content?
Who is asking for that?
Why is there a submit button at the top and bottom of the form?
Did that design result directly from user feedback?
These are often tough questions for marketers and developers to ask because many fear leaving something out. Taking this hard look at content and functionality priorities will ultimately help reduce clutter and cut through to the most important content and UI elements.
Web content and interfaces are often driven by the loudest voice in the organization — the classic “squeaky wheel getting the oil” — and not necessarily the most important in terms of brand or customer value. We’ll drill into this topic in a future post, but this is an area where asking “why?” pays dividends, especially if you have solid user research and site analytics data to reference.
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
Iterate, iterate, iterate. Establish solid research and a well-organized content plan first before you design a single pixel of a website or UI. This guidance will get the experience design off to a great start.
Once underway, however, resist the temptation (or the directive) to quickly crank out a final design on the first attempt. Create a layout, iterate with clients and colleagues, user-test it, create revised and alternate designs based on feedback. Each time, ask the “why” questions and always consider ways to keep simplifying the experience.
Do we really need this?
Should this go here?
How would a user interpret this?
Each iteration will distill your design down to its essence, putting the most important messaging, the most demanded content, and most frequently-used features at the forefront.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Leonardo da Vinci
Keep the virtues of simplicity and clarity top-of-mind in all your planning, projects and designs. Your key message will be further amplified above the noise. Once-hidden opportunities will reveal themselves, with powerful results. Conversations with your customers will become more clear. Superfluous distractions will fall to the wayside, and you and your users will focus on what really matters.
Simplicity will give both you and your customers confidence: confidence that they’re reading the right information, that they’re using the product properly, that they are on the right path.
Simplicity is not generic blandness or “lots of white space.”
Simplicity is your user’s visual language, spoken concisely.
Simplicity is awesome.