Simplicity — A Thoughtful Approach To Better Design

Why do some designs seem inevitable? Why are some of the best designs unnoticed? Why does it feel like some objects happen on their own without any intervention from a designer?

The answer to these questions can be found in the ideas behind simplicity. While sometimes thought of as a particular style, simplicity is more a philosophy about how to design something. It’s having deep understanding of what you’re designing and then creating a unified experience based on that understanding.

Our goal is simple objects, objects that you can’t imagine any other way. Simplicity is not the absence of clutter. Get it right, and you become closer and more focused on the object.
— Jony Ive in an interview with the London Evening Standard

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Why We Misunderstand Simplicity

Defining simplicity seems like it shouldn’t be difficult yet whenever I approach the topic I find it difficult to write about. Something in me says an article about simplicity should fit inside a tweet. That anything more must be too complex.

In The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda lists reduce as the first law of making something simpler. In his words:

The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction

There’s a reason it’s the first law of simplicity. There’s a reason a phrase like less is more gains so much popularity. Chances are the system with less will be simpler. The thing is, it’s not true 100% of the time.

Simplicity isn’t empty space for the sake of empty space

Look back up at the quote. It’s not reduction that leads to simplicity. It’s thoughtful reduction. It’s when we we lose the word thoughtful that we go wrong. Forgetting the thoughtful part is why I feel like anything said about simplicity should fit into a tweet. Less does not automatically lead to simplicity. It probably does most of the time, but it doesn’t all of the time.

Simplicity isn’t empty space for the sake of empty space. It isn’t less for the sake of less. It isn’t reduction for the sake of reduction. Without being thoughtful you can reduce something to complexity just as easily as you can carelessly add to it and create complexity.

If being thoughtful is such an important part of simplicity it begs the question, thoughtful about what?

What is Simplicity?

Simplicity is discovering the core of a problem. It’s understanding the essence of the thing being designed and then remaining authentic to that essence in your solution. The reduction we think about is removing the non-essential. It’s not less for the sake of less, but less for the sake of remaining authentic.

The reason it’s difficult to design simplicity is because understanding the essence of something is difficult to do. It takes time with a thing to really understand it and understand which parts are essential and which aren’t. It means giving up parts that we’ve grown attached to.

Designing simplicity often starts by designing something more complex. Through an iterative process of thoughtful reduction the non-essential is removed, leaving only the essential.

Simplicity comes about when the final product is an honest expression of its essence. The purer you can remain to your vision of the essence, the closer you get to simplicity. The more you deviate, the more you introduce complexity.

Simplicity is clarity. It’s clarity of purpose and function. It’s clarity in communication of what an object is and does. It takes great focus and effort to remain clear and true.

Simplicity is Difficult

Defining the essence of something is not easy work. Take this blog post for example. What’s its essence? Probably the content itself. Does that mean everything on this page outside of the words in the post should be removed?

  • Is the publication date essential?
  • The category and tags associated with it?
  • The breadcrumb navigation?
  • The main navigation?
  • My name as author?
  • The comments?
  • My logo?
  • The ad?

For right or wrong I decided the above were essential elements when I designed the template for blog posts on the site. I started with more and reduced things to what you now see. Next time around I might decide differently.

My goal with this most recent design was to simplify. I look at the list of elements on this page and wonder if I achieved my goal? How much more could I safely remove? Where did I lack courage and leave something in that isn’t essential?

Some of what’s essential depends on what I was designing. If it was only this specific post, the the global navigation isn’t essential. If it’s the site as a whole, then the global navigation can be considered an essential element.

You can likely find some way to justify whatever you add to a design. You can think you were designing something more than you really are. You can make a case why most anything you add should be there. Getting to the essence is hard, because you have to see through all those justifications.

Simplicity requires you to do more as a designer. It takes great effort to refine, refine, and refine again in order to remove what isn’t essence. Simplicity is difficult because it continuously asks you evaluate. It asks you to be sure the thing you’re designing is really what you’re designing. If you stray from the essence, simplicity will suggest throwing out your work and even starting over.

Closing Thoughts

I think the closer any design gets to simplicity the better that design will be. Staying true to the essence of the thing being designed should be a primary goal of all design. Those that successfully follow the goals of simplicity will appear inevitable and right.

Simplicity doesn’t mean the elimination of everything. It’s not about less for the sake of less. It requires thoughtful reduction and not reduction alone. It’s about finding the core idea of what you’re designing and what you’re communicating and being authentic to both.

Simplicity is difficult to achieve. Our first designs are likely to include things that don’t belong. Our instinct is to make things more complicated. We want to include everything and please everyone, but doing so takes us further away from simple.

Designing a simple site means thinking deeply about the site. It means making hard choices and cutting away everything that doesn’t belong. It means giving up things you’re attached to and even rethinking what it is your designing at times.

Simplicity is difficult, but it’s also worth it. The most successful designs are those that practice simplicity and design a thing to be that thing and nothing else.

John Maeda’s 10 Laws of Simplicity

I mentioned the first of John Maeda’s 10 laws of simplicity. Here are the rest. I encourage you to read John’s book. It’s a great read and it’s a book that belongs on a shelf in every designer’s library.

  1. Reduce — The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction
  2. Organize — Organization makes a system of many appear fewer
  3. Time — Savings in time feel like simplicity
  4. Learn — Knowledge makes everything simpler
  5. Differences — Simplicity and complexity need each other
  6. Context — What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral
  7. Emotion — More emotions are better than less
  8. Trust — In simplicity we trust
  9. Failure — Some things can never be made simple
  10. The One — Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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