Sotto Voce.

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The Opposite of Simplicity Isn’t Complexity

Right now I’m reading Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success. It’s written by Ken Segall, a veteran creative director who has run many quality ad campaigns for some very big corporate names, so he knows whereof he speaks. But there was one thing he said that I found myself disagreeing with, and I thought I’d flesh out my thoughts a little bit here.

In his book, Mr. Segall argues that the “evil twin” of simplicity is complexity. When I read that, it brought me up short. Something about that equation seemed off. They didn’t — and they still don’t — feel like natural opposites to me. Once I thought about it, I realized why: it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. Simplicity is a design concept. Complexity is an engineering one. Furthermore, I’d argue, not only are simplicity and complexity not good-vs-evil opposites, they can and often do complement each other.

See, the opposite of simplicity isn’t complexity — it’s clutter. Apple is obsessed with removing clutter. To make an uncluttered design usable, however, requires complexity on a virtuosic scale. The simpler the visible interface, the more complex the invisible processes required to make it work simply.

The overarching principle of Apple’s design philosophy, I contend, is not simplicity, but usable simplicity. And there’s a vast difference between the two.

So as I’m reading the book, wherever I encounter the word “complexity” I mentally replace it with “clutter,” and the resulting sentence is much more effective. Otherwise, I’m in agreement with Mr. Segall’s perceptive and engaging analysis.

Oh, and another thing — by the same token, “complex” and “complicated” aren’t always as synonymous as they look.

POSTSCRIPT: 3/14/15:
Just came across this quote by Sir Jony Ive that captures the same idea:

“Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that’s a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That’s not simple.”

Categorised as: Life the Universe and Everything

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  1. Michael says:

    I absolutely agree with you. Simplicity and complexity are NOT opposites. As you said something may be so complex, that it is actually simple.