Is Simplicity the Antidote to Complexity?

Taken by by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³ and posted to Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Licence

One of the questions on my mind lately has been “can we reduce complexity?”.

I’m not alone.

Indeed, almost anyone working in information sciences, media, healthcare, public policy, or any information-driven sector (which is more and more of us these days) wrestles with complexity in their work. Complexity’s problem is simple: it’s very nature requires intense concentration, knowledge, and consideration, which requires mutliple faculties and scales.

In the recent issue of Explore magazine, journalist J.B. MacKinnon (who, with Alisa Smith, wrote the 100 Mile Diet) commented on the practical challenges facing someone trying to live sustainably. One hypothetical example he uses is the hiker, who plans a low-impact, ecologically responsible trip (which heightens his passion for conservation) only to be told that his brand of boots contribute to the death of sea turtles in Mexico. Despite the best efforts, there are too many things to attend to to make a decision that satisfies every demand: it’s too complex.

John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design and visual artist, has tried to address this issue over his career. In 2006 he compiled his meditations over many years into a book called “The Laws of Simplicity In a (simple?) slender volume, Maeda outlines the following ten laws:

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.

Rarely has a book been so highly anticipated a read (it’s been on my bookshelf for two years waiting for the right moment) and left me so perplexed. Why? The ideas are certainly simple, the text and argument are simple (but not simplistic), and some are right on the mark, yet others are not.

For me, 4 (Learn), 5 (Differences), and 7 (Emotion) are all problematic, although ironically, I think they are critical to complexity and simplicity, but for reasons that differ from Maeda’s argument.

Humans are complex and each of these three laws deals with phenomena that add information over time and thus, increase complexity, not introduce simplicity. In my next few posts, I’ll be exploring each of these in detail.

1 thought on “Is Simplicity the Antidote to Complexity?”

  1. Thanks for this entry! Timely 🙂

    Not having read Maeda’s book, what appears common across the laws is that they result from implicit relationships.

    The trick of simplicity may be selecting which is going to be put into relation with what.

    I’m curious what you’ll share about when or why a particular law is “problematic” for you. Especially, I’m curious if you locate the problem in yourself as an autonomous entity or in the interactional dynamics of being with others.


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