How To Achieve Simplicity In Design

Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication
Leonardo da Vinci

In his now classic book Art and Visual Perception, Rudolph Arnheim noted that people will perceive and interpret ambiguous or complex shapes as the simplest form possible. There’s something inherent in us that prefers the simple to the complex.

Simplicity is the key to brilliance

Nature loves simplicity and unity
Johannes Kepler

What is Simplicity?

simplicity (n)

  1. freedom from complexity, intricacy, or division into parts.
  2. absence of pretentiousness or ornament
  3. directness of expressions

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful. It’s about making something easier to understand.

Simplicity is getting at the core of something and understanding what that thing truly is and then making every part consistent with the core.

We know simple when we see it, when we touch it, when we use it. And one thing we quickly learn is simplicity is difficult to achieve.

Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.…You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.
Jony Ive

Macrophotogrpahy of a flower that has yet to bloom

Why is Simplicity Important?

In a 2002 poll, the Consumer Electronics Association discovered that 87% of people said ease of use is the most important thing when it comes to new technologies.

Simplicity doesn’t equal usability, but simple designs are typically easier to use.

Consider the principle of choices. Providing less options leads to a greater chance that any one option will be chosen. Each additional option adds complexity to the decision making process.

Simple designs tend to be more aesthetically pleasing. Simplicity is more accessible. It helps us get things done faster, more easily, and more efficiently.

Simplicity leads to less need for instruction and support.

Think of the popularity of services like Instapaper and Readability and ask yourself why they’re popular. One reason is they strip away the ornament in the design of many websites and simply present the content. They make it simpler to consume the content.

Swiss writer and entrepreneur, Alain de Bouton observed that “cultures are drawn to create things that are missing from their age and environment.”

It’s no wonder simplicity is a goal of our current culture. The more complex our lives become, the more we crave simplicity.

How Do We Achieve Simplicity?

The first step in achieving simplicity in design is, as Jony Ive said, to go deep. You have to truly understand what’s at the core, what’s the essence of the thing your designing.

This is why mobile first is such a compelling design strategy because it forces you to think about what is really necessary. The constraints of the mobile screen require the essential to be front and foremost.

Giles Colborne’s slideshare presentation above offers us 4 steps away from complexity and towards simplicity in design.

Remove features — Don’t just remove to remove. Remove the unessential through thoughtful reduction.

The idea is to remove what doesn’t get used and what doesn’t add anything meaningful to the essence of the thing you’re designing.

Keep in mind that you can’t remove everything. Too few features can make things more complex to use.

Hide features — Some things shouldn’t be removed, but they don’t demand our attention at all times.

Hide things that are less important at the moment. Move them to an out of the way place, but allow them to be easily findable when needed. Think of the principle of progressive disclosure.

Drop down menus are an example of a pattern we’ve all been using for years that attempts to hide what’s unnecessary at the moment.

Group features — By placing things into logical groups you make them easier to find.

The group becomes a quick and easy target to eliminate others and then we can zero in on what we want by searching through fewer options.

We can design groupings by organizing content well, aligning elements, creating order though grids, and taking advantage of the principle of proximity.

Displace features — Move features and options to another location.

A good example is removing buttons from a remote control in favor of a single button leading to an on screen menu.

This doesn’t remove the complexity, but rather moves it to a location where it may not seem as complex.

Simplicity in the abstract: A light pole surrounded by clouds

The Core and the Unified Whole

Make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.
Albert Einstein

Einstein’s quote sums up nicely the objective of design simplicity.

The latter is achieved through unity. When everything is in harmony with the core they enhance it. When things are not in harmony they distract, which adds complexity.

Aesthetics and experience need to be aligned to the core.

Start with a minimalist approach and then add only with the idea of unity in mind. If it doesn’t enhance the core, it doesn’t belong. Thoughtful reduction is about core and unity

Toward the end of his presentation Colborne offers 2 laws of simplicity

  • Complexity is never eliminated. It’s merely reduced and displaced. Ask yourself where you want complexity to end up.
  • Simplicity is an experience. It happens in the user’s head. Simplicity is whatever your users think it is. It’s their experience that determines if something is simple.

To improve simplicity he urges us to focus on the following.

  • what is core
  • make the experience compact
  • align the experience to the core
  • rely on existing user knowledge
  • decide where you want to place complexity
  • trust the user

Making something appear simple adds complexity behind the scenes. Simplicity in design moves the complex away from the user and toward the creator.

This is why simplicity is difficult. To design a site simple for your visitors to use, means more work for you.

It’s more work, but it’s worth it.

Closeup of a spider web

Summary

When confronted with a complex set of shapes or forms we’re programmed to see the simplest possible form in order to make sense of what we see.

As our lives grow ever more complex we crave the simplicity that is missing.

Simplicity is more than just removing the arbitrary. We active simplicity by taking the time to understand the essence or core of what we are designing and then doing our best to have everything enhance that core and not disrupt it.

I’ll leave you with some quotes you’ve likely seen before.

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.
Antoine de Saint Exupery

Everything should be as simple as possible — but no simpler.
Albert Einstein

Omit needless words.
Strunk and White

Less, but better
Dieter Rams

It just works
Steve Jobs

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

11 comments

  1. Hi Steven, You have made simplicity,simple to understand.Love the way explained simply the concept of simplicity and how,where and when to apply it.
    I belive as many others do,nature being the best example of simplicity.Just a sun rise every morning of our life simply lights everything that was hidding under the darkness of night,and we only see what we want to see at that point of time,is the sun rise.Simple.Thanks for making more people understand simplicity.

    • Thanks Vikas. Good point about nature. In some ways it can be incredible complex, but often when you think about it, it’s also incredibly simple.

      Maybe it’s really just us that makes things complicated and complex. :)

    • I hear you. There are always so many things that seem important and necessary. I usually try to think of it like an onion. Peel away the outermost layer and remove it. Once you’ve lived with that layer gone for a time, the next layer becomes easier to remove.

      In that way you keep removing one layer at a time until you’re left with what’s really necessary. Hopefully nothing unnecessary has snuck its way in.

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