Tag: book

art & designcomplexitysocial systemssystems thinking

A Beautiful Idea

MakeSomethingBeautiful_Snapseed

Is what you do, where you work, or how you organize, beautiful? Among the many words used to describe our work lives the most neglected and maybe necessary might be described that one word: it’s time to take it seriously. 

For those working in design one of the biggest challenges is getting people to understand that good design isn’t just about making things pretty, but making them better, more useful, more responsive, sustainable, and impactful. Good design is too often seen as a ‘nice to have’ than a ‘must have’ and is thus invested in accordingly.

‘Beautiful’ as a concept has it even worse. In my entire working career I’ve never heard the word uttered even once on a matter of professional importance by others. That’s a shame and it speaks loudly to our present situation where innovation is hard to come by, organizations struggle to attract and retain good people, and the battle for attention — of the market and our workforce — is maybe the biggest one of them all.

But beauty is worth a look, particularly because it is, well, beautiful.

A beautiful term

What is beautiful? Consider the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition.

beautiful |ˈbyo͞odəfəl| adjective

pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically: beautiful poetry | a beautiful young woman | the mountains were calm and beautiful.

• of a very high standard; excellent: the house had been left in beautiful order | she spoke in beautiful English.

Note two key features of this definition: pleasing the senses or mind and high standards. The first part might sound a bit hedonistic (PDF), but when you consider what motivates us at the most base level of existence: it’s pleasure and pain. We are attracted to people, experiences, objects and environments that generate pleasure. In an environment described above when attracting talent, eyeballs — attention — is so hard to come by, why would we not amplify beauty?

The second term is high standards. It’s not enough to attract attention, we need to hold it and to inspire action, loyalty and persistence if we wish to succeed on most counts. Quality is a competitive advantage in many environments, particularly in human services where the complexity associated with poor quality decisions, processes and management are potentially catastrophic. (Enron, anyone?).

An associated term to this is aesthetics, which is defined as:

aesthetic |esˈTHedik| (also estheticadjective

concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty: the pictures give great aesthetic pleasure.

• giving or designed to give pleasure through beauty; of pleasing appearance.

Aesthetics is the more active appreciation of beauty — the application of it in the world. Organizational aesthetics is an emergent area of scholarship and practice that seeks to understand the role of beauty in the organization and its implications. Steven Taylor describes organizational aesthetics through storytelling, outlining the way he came to know something through connecting his work with his senses. His story points to different ways in which organizational aesthetics is experienced and understood, but ultimately how its sensed. It’s that attention to the senses that really sets this field apart, but also how practical it is.

Practical beauty

Organizational aesthetics are about practical realities of organizational life, brought to bear through our five senses, not just the mind. Strange that so much of what is produced in the literature and scholarship is so cognitive and devoid of discussion of any other sensory experiences. Yet, we are sensuous beings and most healthy when we are in touch (literally!) with our senses in our lives. Consider the cortical homunculus and you’ll know that we feel through a lot more than we often use in our work lives.

Organizational aesthetics is about using methods that tap into these senses and the qualities of physical, social, psychological spaces where they can be used more fully to contribute to more impactful, healthier and happier environments for humans to work and thrive. This approach is rooted in design and the hypothesis that, as human created (thus designed) constructs, the modern organization can design in beauty as much as it can design beauty away. Like design itself, organizational aesthetics is practical, above all.

Citing earlier work from Roozenberg & Eekles (1995) on the topic of design causality, Steven De Groot, from the Eindhoven University of Technology, points to the way in which design is a responsive means to helping an organization adapt.

By fulfilling functions a design satisfies needs, and gives people the possibility to realize one or more values. Transferring these fundamentals, the design of the organization needs to change as a consequence of changing roles and needs of the employees in this case.

Roozenberg and Eekles assert that form follows value and thus, as De Groot sought to explore, explicit value of beauty can produce beautiful organizations. The reasoning for this research comes from earlier studies that show that when organizations value and nurture beauty within them, employees are happier, their commitment increases and the organizational function is improved.

Dispelling beautiful myths

Despite the reams of research that has emerged from a variety of disciplines showing the connections between beauty and positive outcomes and experiences in organizations, there will be many who are still troubled by the idea of integrating the word ‘beautiful’ into the serious world of work. It may be tempted to rely on a few myths to deny its utility so let’s dispel those right away.

  1. Promotion of beauty is not denial of the ugly. Ugly is everywhere: in the news, on social media (spent time on Facebook lately?), and embedded in many of our global, social challenges. Embracing the beautiful is not about denying ugly, but drawing our focus to areas where we can create change. As I discussed in a previous post, good design is increasingly about reducing information overload and focusing on areas we can influence by creating positive attractors, not negative ones. It’s based on attention and human nature. We stop and remark on fresh cut flowers. We comment on a colleagues’ attractive new outfit or clothing item (“I love your new socks!”). We see something that is well designed and we admire it, covet it or just enjoy it. Beauty captures something of the most rarest of commodities in the modern age: attention. We won’t change the world by yelling louder, we’ll change it by speaking beautifully, better.
  2. There’s no single definition of beauty. Beauty is truly subjective. What I might find particularly beautiful is different than what someone else will, yet there is much evidence that there is also a shared sense of the beautiful. Pierre Bourdieu’s work on taste and taste-making (PDF) points to the social means in which we — fair or not — share perspectives to elevate ideas, concepts and artifacts. We are social and thus share social rules, tastes and ideas and that this might be done across cultures, within ‘tribes’ or tied to specific settings or groups, but there is always something shared.
  3. There are shared principles of beauty. What makes for a shared cultural experience is something that we refer to as simple rules in complexity studies. These are rules that may be explicit, unconscious or tacit that guide collective actions and shared experiences. It, combined with history (and something we call path dependence – a driver of stability and stasis in a system), is what allows us to have some collective appreciation of the beautiful. It’s why natural elements (e.g., plants) or use of certain colours can create a positive atmosphere and psychological experience within a setting even if those plants or colours are universally loved.
  4. There is plenty of evidence to support the case for making changes based on beauty. This ‘absence of evidence’ myth will take a while to dispel as people will see (or not see) what they want to. All I would suggest is that you take a long hard look at some of the research — in particular Steven de Groot’s doctoral work — and put that up against any other theory or program of research and explain how it’s less than — particularly given how young of a field it is. There is an entire academic journal devoted to this topic (and, like in any journal, not all the evidence is top-notch, but there’s good work in there and throughout the literature). Consider how management theory, a well-established area of scholarship, is already becoming ‘a compendium of dead ideas‘ given the paucity of solid research behind it and yet something like organizational aesthetics hasn’t taken hold? The battle is long, but adoption of some new, beautiful thinking is one that will pay off. I’ve not even started getting into the arguments for environmental and organizational psychology or design.

Change in a complex system is about creating, finding and amplifying positive attractors and dampening and eliminating negative ones (and in complex systems positive isn’t always good and negative bad, it’s about what the goals are in the system — what you wish to achieve within that system. In society, these are almost always socially negotiated, somewhat contested).

Attracting attention, ideas, and energy is one of our biggest social challenges at the moment and a huge barrier to change.

Everyone’s looking for a way to capture attention and hold it when there is a beautiful solution right under their noses.

Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike” – John Muir, 1869

Image Credit: Author

behaviour changecomplexityeducation & learningpsychologysystems science

Asking Better and More Beautiful Questions

Why__by_WhiteSpeed

Beautiful answers require beautiful (and better) questions and Warren Berger’s new book looks at this very phenomenon of inquiry and asks: What does it mean to ask better questions and what does that mean for the answers we seek and receive?  

Warren Berger recently published  A More Beautiful Question, a book looking at something we take for granted and yet is the foundational building block for all great designs and innovations: the question.

Perhaps more specifically, Berger is looking at hundreds of questions as he delves into the process of questioning, the kind of questions that lead to provocative and insightful answers, and the habits of good questioning that make for sustained innovation over time.  Berger is well suited to this inquiry having penned the book Glimmer, which profiled designer Bruce Mau and explored the concept of design thinking in great detail.

Asking good questions is perhaps the (often unstated, missed and neglected) foundation of what design thinking is all about and seeing that design is the foundation of innovation it therefore means that questioning is at that foundation, too. This is important stuff.

Finding the right problem by asking better questions

A look at any bookstore, blog roll, or journal dealing with the topic of innovation and you’ll inevitably find the word “creativity” used a lot. Creativity — the act and process of creating things — is highly correlated with the questions that spur the creation in the first place. Education professor J.W. Getzels did some of the earliest research on creativity and questioning (which is interestly absent from Berger’s book) and found that those who took more time to find the best problem to solve – and thus, asked better and deeper questions of their world and subject matter — came up with more creative ideas than those who dove quickly into solving the problem as they initially saw it.

The simple take-away is: 

At the root of an answer is a question – J.W. Getzels

The better the question, the better the answer.

In complexity terms, the questions asked often create the path dependencies that entrench practices that come after it. So by asking better or ‘more beautiful’ questions and giving that attention we are not only doing ourselves a service, but are acting more ethical as well. This ethical foundation is what underlies mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat Zinn has written extensively on the importance of grounding oneself to ask better questions of the world, something that I’ve done through CENSE Research + Design in developing a mindful organization model.

In his 2004 presidential address to the Canadian Psychological Association Pat O’Neill looked at how sub-fields like community psychology changed the nature of how many “problems” in psychology were framed at the outset. Issues like poverty, drug addiction and unemployment were often (and still are in many domains) framed as personal, moral failings or just bad choices. By asking different questions of these problems, community psychologists were able to see how social policies, neighbourhood structures, social networks, and historical social exclusion — all systems issues — factor in to frame and constrain individual’s choices and risk behaviours. Suddenly, what had been framed as a personal problem, became a shared one that we all had at least some stake in.

It is this thinking that has led to greater awareness of how social change is inextricably linked to systems change and why we need to understand systems at the individual, organizational, community and societal level if we wish to address many of our social problems. Asking systems questions is asking different, sometimes more beautiful questions that get at the root of problems and inspire social innovation.

Finding the beautiful question

In his book, Berger finds that those best equipped to solve or at least address these big wicked questions in business, philanthropy and social innovation are those that ask ‘beautiful questions’ and do it often. Berger cites studies that have shown a clear relationship between success in leadership and a propensity to ask good questions. Asking good questions however takes time and the willingness to take time to question, think and question some more is another stand-out feature of these successful leaders.

It is why good questioning is also a leadership issue. Effective leaders often take the time needed to fully process the most important decisions to form what Gary Hamel and C.K. Pralahad refer to as strategic intent. Psychologist Daniel Goleman recently summarized the research linking mindfulness to focus and leadership, showing how leaders are able to better focus on what they do by being mindful. This mindful attention clears away much of the cognitive clutter to enable better question finding and asking.

Berger shows that finding the question requires some persistence. Good questioners are able to live with not having an answer or even the right question for a while. They have great patience. That ability to stand back and think, see, reflect and think some more while prototyping questions is what separates those who ask the better questions from those who don’t.

Creative collisions also helps. By mixing up ideas and connections with others, good questioners give themselves the raw material to work with. However, many of the best questioners that Berger spoke to also advocated for the need for some solitude and time to process these ideas and questions on their own. This mix of collaboration, collision, and independence is a key factor in developing the beautiful idea.

Designing better question-making

What jumped out at me in this book was how little support most organizations offer themselves for asking better, beautiful questions. Berger noted that the need for ‘serial mastery’ and constant learning is a staple of the new work environment, which should lend itself to question asking. However, if organizations are unwilling or unable to provide time for reflection, training, knowledge integration and ongoing discovery through better questions how likely is it that the workforce is going to respond to this need for new skills?

Are organizations willing to invest in a culture of inquiry? Are organizations able to make the leap from knowing things to asking things? How many public sector, non-profit, social and health service organizations (let alone industry groups) would be willing to follow companies like Google who create space — literally and figuratively — for questioning? These are some of the questions I asked myself as I read Berger’s book.

These are design questions. Berger notes how Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were both Montessori school graduates. The Montessori system of education is based on question asking and Google is run as an organization largely framed around questions (and queries as noted by the very notion of “googling” something). Google has been designed to support better questions in its literal architecture of its software, its hardware, its office space, and the ‘20 per cent time‘ they offer employees to explore questions they have and projects that are of personal importance to them.

True to the idea of questions being worthy of paying attention to, Warren Berger’s book is filled with them including some answers. I liked the book and believe that he has tapped into something very big. Whether or not organizations and leaders will be inspired to ask better questions from this or simply try to find better answers in the processes they have is perhaps the big question next.

On a related note, March 14th has been dubbed Question Day by Berger and his colleagues at the Right Question Institute, a non-profit organization that provides support for teachers and students to ask better questions in school as a foundation for a lifetime of learning. 

References:

Berger, W. (2009). Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada.

Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Chand, I., & Runco, M. A. (1993). Problem finding skills as components in the creative process. Personality and Individual Differences, 14(1), 155–162.

Getzels, J. W. (1979). Problem Finding: a Theoretical Note. Cognitive Science, 3(2), 167–172. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog0302_4

Getzels, J. W. (1980). Problem Finding and Human Thought. The Educational Forum, 44(2), 243–244.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins.

O’Neill, P. (2005). The ethics of problem definition. Canadian Psychology, 46(13-22).

Photo credit: Why? by Whitespeed via DeviantArt

complexityemergenceevaluationinnovation

Do you value (social) innovation?

Do You Value the Box or What's In It?

Do You Value the Box or What’s In It?

The term evaluation has at its root the term value and to evaluate innovation means to assess the value that it brings in its product or process of development. It’s remarkable how much discourse there is on the topic of innovation that is devoid of discussion of evaluation, which begs the question: Do we value innovation in the first place?

The question posed above is not a cheeky one. The question about whether or not we value innovation gets at the heart of our insatiable quest for all things innovative.

Historical trends

A look at Google N-gram data for book citations provides a historical picture of how common a particular word shows up in books published since 1880. Running the terms innovation, social innovation and evaluation through the N-gram software finds some curious trends. A look at graphs below finds that the term innovation spiked after the Second World War. A closer look reveals a second major spike in the mid-1990s onward, which is likely due to the rise of the Internet.

In both cases, technology played a big role in shaping the interest in innovation and its discussion. The rise of the cold war in the 1950’s and the Internet both presented new problems to find and the need for such problems to be addressed.

Screenshot 2014-03-05 13.29.28 Screenshot 2014-03-05 13.29.54 Screenshot 2014-03-05 13.30.13

Below that is social innovation, a newer concept (although not as new as many think), which showed a peak in citations in the 1960’s and 70s, which corresponds with the U.S. civil rights movements, expansion of social service fields like social work and community mental health, anti-nuclear organizing, and the environmental movement.  This rise for two decades is followed by a sharp decline until the early 2000’s when things began to increase again.

Evaluation however, saw the most sustained increase over the 20th century of the three terms, yet has been in decline ever since 1982. Most notable is the even sharper decline when both innovation and social innovation spiked.

Keeping in mind that this is not causal or even linked data, it is still worth asking: What’s going on? 

The value of evaluation

Let’s look at what the heart of evaluation is all about: value. The Oxford English Dictionary defines value as:

value |ˈvalyo͞o|

noun

1 the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something: your support is of great value.

• the material or monetary worth of something: prints seldom rise in value | equipment is included up to a total value of $500.

• the worth of something compared to the price paid or asked for it: at $12.50 the book is a good value.

2 (values) a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life: they internalize their parents’ rules and values.

verb (values, valuing, valued) [ with obj. ]

1 estimate the monetary worth of (something): his estate was valued at $45,000.

2 consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial; have a high opinion of: she had come to value her privacy and independence.

Innovation is a buzzword. It is hard to find many organizations who do not see themselves as innovative or use the term to describe themselves in some part of their mission, vision or strategic planning documents. A search on bookseller Amazon.com finds more than 63,000 titles organized under “innovation”.

So it seems we like to talk about innovation a great deal, we just don’t like to talk about what it actually does for us (at least in the same measure). Perhaps, if we did this we might have to confront what designer Charles Eames said:

Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other.

At the same time I would like to draw inspiration from another of Eames’ quotes:

Most people aren’t trained to want to face the process of re-understanding a subject they already know. One must obtain not just literacy, but deep involvement and re-understanding.

Valuing innovation

Innovation is easier to say than to do and, as Eames suggested, is a last resort when the conventional doesn’t work. For those working in social innovation the “conventional” might not even exist as it deals with the new, the unexpected, the emergent and the complex. It is perhaps not surprising that the book Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed is co-authored by an evaluator: Michael Quinn Patton.

While Patton has been prolific in advancing the concept of developmental evaluation, the term hasn’t caught on in widespread practice. A look through the social innovation literature finds little mention of developmental evaluation or even evaluation at all, lending support for the extrapolation made above. In my recent post on Zaid Hassan’s book on social laboratories one of my critique points was that there was much discussion about how these social labs “work” with relatively little mention of the evidence to support and clarify the statement.

One hypothesis is that evaluation can be seen a ‘buzzkill’ to the buzzword. It’s much easier, and certainly more fun, to claim you’re changing the world than to do the interrogation of one’s activities to find that the change isn’t as big or profound as one expected. Documentation of change isn’t perceived as fun as making change, although I would argue that one is fuel for the other.

Another hypothesis is that there is much mis-understanding about what evaluation is with (anecdotally) many social innovators thinking that its all about numbers and math and that it misses the essence of the human connections that support what social innovation is all about.

A third hypothesis is that there isn’t the evaluative thinking embedded in our discourse on change, innovation, and social movements that is aligned with the nature of systems and thus, people are stuck with models of evaluation that simply don’t fit the context of what they’re doing and therefore add little of the value that evaluation is meant to reveal.

If we value something, we need to articulate what that means if we want others to follow and value the same thing. That means going beyond lofty, motherhood statements that feel good — community building, relationships, social impact, “making a difference” — and articulating what they really mean. In doing so, we are better position to do more of what works well, change what doesn’t, and create the culture of inquiry and curiosity that links our aspirations to our outcomes.

It means valuing what we say we value.

(As a small plug: want to learn more about this? The Evaluation for Social Innovation workshop takes this idea further and gives you ways to value, evaluate and communicate value. March 20, 2014 in Toronto).

 

 

journalismsocial media

Reading it Later: Om Malik Reflects

Giga OM founder and prolific reader Om Malik posted a reflection on his reading habits on his blog that got me thinking about the way we consume, rate and appreciate content online. In this post, Malik shares some of the dialogue he has with the CEO of Pocket, a read-it-later service that allows you to save webpages you’re unable or unwilling to read at the moment you find them. It’s a great service and I love using it, but it is a source of guilt — which is what struck me about the exchange. I, like Malik, am also a voracious book buyer. My ‘to-read’ list is enormous and I am constantly feeling behind or wondering whether I have sufficiently caught up or processing what I need. Talking with others, this is shared and clearly Pocket is aware of this. The metric of words saved and read which, in the case of Om was two novels worth per month, is oddly reassuring that all that content consumed in webpages and tweets and such is adding up to something. The bigger issue and quest might be (a la Dr Strangelove): how to stop worrying and love content.

Gigaom

One of the things I like about the internet (as opposed to hating it) is the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions with really smart people and walk away more educated from those interactions. Earlier this week, I blogged about my save-and-read-it-later habits based on data from Pocket, which is my de facto TiVo for the web. My conclusion looking at the data was that I am reading a lot less than I thought (only about a third of what I was saving) and promised to work harder to get through more articles.

This prompted a response from Pocket CEO Nate Weiner and his editorial director, Mark Armstrong, who said that I have to look at it as a glass half full, not glass half empty. In his blog post in response to my post, Mark wrote:

“There is a misperception that Pocket should be treated like…

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art & designenvironmentpublic health

Design Space in Public Health

EmabarcaderoFountainIf design is everywhere humans are and shapes our interactions in the built environment, which dictates how we interact with the world around us should it not be considered important enough to be a part of public health?

I recently picked up a copy of the architecturally-inspired Arcade Magazine because of its theme on Science, Art and Inquiry. Inside was a piece by Andrew Dannenberg, Howard Frumpkin and Daniel Friedman. The first two are MD’s and the last author an architect and all are from the University of Washington . In that article, they outline a case for why design and public health should go together. The audience for the piece are those interested in architecture.

Indeed, Arcade’s purpose is to “incite dialogue about design and the built environment”. It makes me wonder why we don’t have something that “incites dialogue about design and public health?”.

Yet, I couldn’t help but think that same piece should be published in a public health space. In the article, the authors outline a few of the key areas where design can contribute to public health.

Among the first of these areas is promoting physical activity and the role that design can play in building and planning for spaces that encourage people to move in healthy ways:

Working together with public health professionals and planners, designers can help remedy what urban theorist Nan Ellin calls “place-deficit disorder,” starting with the basics – stairways, sidewalks, landscapes and contiguous urban spaces – which they can compose to attract greater pedestrian use.

Designing for resiliency is another of the areas where good design can benefit the public by creating a solid urban infrastructure to literally weather the storms that come upon us:

Evidence-based design can help reduce vulnerability and enhance the resilience of buildings and infrastructure, but most importantly, the communities who depend on them.

They also look at the role of design in enhancing sustainability and as a means for assisting environmental health while shaping the demand for sustainable products:

Designers possess the unique skills, knowledge and practices to specify the use of benign materials across scales based on life cycle analysis, energy conservation, carbon management, and environmental and health impacts. As designers expand these practices, they educate their clients, inform the public and shift the market.\

Lastly, they focus on how design can contribute to reducing social inequities by drawing on evidence looking at the connections between space and wellbeing for those in low-income neighbourhoods:

Recent studies demonstrate that links between greater access to green space and lower mortality are more pronounced among the poor than the wealthy. Housing initiatives that offer better homes for low-income persons, workplace design that protects workers, and universal design that improves access for activities by persons with disabilities—these practices benefit vulnerable populations and offer designers unlimited opportunities to help foster fuller, healthier lives.

Expanding the discourse of design and public health

It was refreshing to read a ‘conversation’ between public health and design and some taking the issue of space and health seriously from a design point of view. Some, like Emily Pilloton and her Project H design others have sought to use design as a bridge to social wellbeing by looking at space as being about communities and economics. Her video below explains how she has taken a design-driven approach to her work in promoting new sustainable ways to engage her adopted community of Bertie county.

Both of these examples of design in public health take a place-based approach, however there is much that can be done with designing the experience of health beyond place. Jon Kolko’s group at AC4D looked at design and homeless in their book Wicked Problems.  Andrew Shea has looked at the link between graphic design and social good in his book, which is explained further in his TEDX talk below. The design firm IDEO has been working on social good projects now for a few years through its IDEO.org platform and program.

  Bringing public health in

What seems to be missing and that the article in Arcade did and that was bring public health in. Emily Pilloton, Jon Kolko, Andrew Shea and many other terrific socially-minded designers are changing the way the public thinks about public health. Public health needs to be doing this too. It is striking that we have so few public health professionals — Drs Andrew Dannenberg and Howard Frumpkin as exceptions — doing the kind of design-oriented research and publishing in this area. It is ripe and public health and design both need it.

I don’t expect a lot of public health folks read Arcade, but maybe they should. And maybe we should be reading more about design in public health publications too.

complexityinnovationpublic healthsystems sciencesystems thinking

Handbook of Systems and Complexity in Health

Handbook of Systems and Complexity in Health

Handbook of Systems and Complexity in Health

A brilliant and comprehensive new book has been launched that brings together the best scholars working in the area of systems thinking and complexity and applying it to health.

The book description can be found here along with a link to the abstract for a chapter I co-authored with Andrea Yip looking at the overlap between design thinking and systems science and complexity. This chapter takes a design lens on previous work developing the CoNEKTR model for engagement in complexity and health.

It’s a big book, but well worth a look if you’re wrestling with complexity and systems thinking in health and social innovation.

complexitysystems thinking

Rethinking the Relationship Between Simplicity, Complexity and Knowledge

Today I continue to look at the concept of simplicity and its relationship to complexity by focusing on the work of John Maeda, designer, artist and president of the Rhode Island School of Design. Maeda has devoted much of his career to understanding the role of simplicity in art, design, business, technology and everyday living and his book, The Laws of Simplicity, may be the most cogent analysis of simplicity in a manner that adheres to the very laws it espouses. As a designer, academic, and innovator, Maeda’s interest in simplicity reaches to the core of his craft and because of this, his work on the subject is worth paying attention to.

The Laws of Simplicity outline 10 laws, of which most I agree with. However, there are three that I see as problematic and, in some cases, actually inspire greater complexity rather than reveal or produce simplicity. I begin with Law #4: “knowledge makes everything simpler”.

In the fourth law, Maeda argues that simple things often require knowledge to fully unlock their potential. One of the examples he gives is the screwdriver and the screw. Two simple things, but it requires knowledge of how they fit together and which way to use them through such mnemonic devices like “righty tighty, lefty loosy” to make the simplicity work (p.33).

Using the examples of learners tackling new and difficult problems, Maeda discusses how the development and application of knowledge creates opportunities to create simple solutions by understanding the basics relative to the more complex parts — something systems thinkers might consider relating the entire system to the components within it. Using the screwdriver example, this law becomes quite evident and could easily be supported. However, to use tools like screwdrivers as the metaphor, there are problems that require many tools working at the same time to solving them. It is here that a little information helps to a point, but then as starts to fall back on itself because the volume of knowledge required to fully understand things gets too much. In complexity terms, this is where interactions and feedback enter and the previously independent points of knowledge converge, requiring someone to attend to multiple things at the same time. As the metaphor goes, the vise, the saw, the planer, the drill and the screwdriver all need to be thought of at the same time in order to solve the problem. New mnemonics or “simple rules” need to be found.

Indeed, there is a point where more information helps, but my experience as an educator and health researcher suggests that there is a threshold in which knowledge sews confusion rather than yields insight. Below is a schematic drawn from my experience paired with insights from cognitive and information science that illustrates what happens when there is too much information. However, before reading this consider the following assumptions in which this model was based:

If we surmise that complex information is more difficult to fully comprehend than something simple, then the likelihood of a message being understood goes up if it has greater simplicity than complexity.

If we consider knowledge as being the understanding of information, then we can conclude that more information equals more knowledge.

Limits to Knowledge in Complex Systems

In the diagram, there is a steady increase in the amount of clarity that knowledge provides up to a point where it levels off and then, as information increases, the complexity rises and the confusion grows. At some point, the information and knowledge load becomes too large for the problem and the simplicity starts becoming complex. This I describe as a law unto itself, because I have yet to find an issue where this doesn’t apply.

Edmunds and Morris (2000) looked at this phenomenon in a review of the literature published in the International Journal of Information Management, concluding that information overload is a serious problem for organizations and the individuals within them.

To illustrate this problem of knowledge and simplicity, consider a socially conscious trip to your average North American grocery store. I love food and want to eat in a manner that is healthy, ethical and environmentally and economically sustainable. As a result, I devote a lot of time to researching food to find out what options are available to me. This knowledge has transformed something simple like buying groceries into an event of uncommon complexity (or joy into angst on some days). My knowledge of healthy eating means that foods with trans-fats, excess sodium and sugar, and high levels of carbohydrates, fats and calories are out. Add to that what I know about socially responsible farming and the environment, and I’ll try to choose products with less packaging, organically (and sustainably) grown, local (when appropriate), and those that use little harmful chemicals that unnecessarily damage the environment and the creatures within it. I also want my food to be of good quality (fresh) and good value (which often means low cost). Each one of these issues — healthy vs. not, organic vs. not, expensive vs. cheap — are issues where some more information can lead to making the decision simpler. Multiplied together, and this becomes complex.

As author Neil Johnson puts it:

Two’s company, three’s complexity.

Perhaps it should be:

Two’s simple, three’s complex.

So with regards to the Law, I agree that it is correct for certain problems, but not all. Rather, I suggest amending Maeda’s 4th Law to read:

Some Knowledge Makes Some Things Simpler, While Lots of Knowledge Makes a Lot of Things More Complex