In a world awash in content and the resulting complexity that comes when it all intersects the viable options for how to manage it remain few. The Dutch De Stijl art and design movement might offer some lessons on dealing with complexity that we can apply beyond products to creating beautiful, functional, and effective services, settings and policy options.
Are you informed about the world? Chances are the answer to that question is both no and yes. There’s no question that you’re informed, the question might be more on what you’re informed about, to what extent, whether that’s of your interest (and relevance and need) and whether it’s an accurate (and useful) depiction of the world around you. That’s a much more complicated set of questions with a troubling set of answers. But one group (the Dutch) may have found some solutions… but we’ll get to that in a moment.
First let’s look at what we’re up against: data streams of distraction.
Data streams of distraction
Consider the many information sources we’re presented with daily.
Consider mine in no particular order, starting with digital : Email (multiple accounts), two course management portals, Instagram, Twitter (two accounts), LinkedIn, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Whats App, comments on my website or Facebook company page, about 2 dozen apps (on my iPhone and iPad), myriad websites I visit, text messages and, oh yes, occasionally the phone will ring. Next, there’s physical magazines, books, radio or music streams and television, too. Looking out my window I see cranes and buildings and billboards from my downtown loft apartment (and hear birds singing, above it all).
I also encounter real-life human beings, too and they have things to share and more information for me. Funny, that.
This is based on what I choose to look at (even if some choices are rather constrained, such as knowing there is only one way to reach someone and that means engaging with a particular media form I intensely dislike — I’m talking about you, Facebook). Travelling through my day, others will approach and engage, I’ll encounter new things that present themselves and will be handed, shown, flashed or spoken to plenty of other information. The volume of information keeps growing with every encounter.
Then there’s the information stored in memory, the remnants of all of those other days, experiences, and a lifetime of events and information.
This will all happen in real-time, refer to present situations, the past, many possible futures, contain truths, lies, myths and be incomplete in parts all over. It is, in short, a perfect representation of complexity. And it’s causing us a lot of problems.
The term ‘information(al) overload’ has been coined to describe the exposure to too much information or data. Information overload and the design problems that information abundance provides has contributed to . Engineers, the builders of much of our critical infrastructure (including, ironically, information technology), know this firsthand and are growing in their concern over how they see that influencing their work. In 2012 the IEEE published a book (PDF) that looked deeply at the role of information overload where the authors note that information overload is not just when people seek new information, but when it information searches for them. The authors argue that:
Information overload “places knowledge workers and managers worldwide in a chronic state of mental overload. It exacts a massive toll on employee productivity and causes significant personal harm, while organizations ultimately pay the price with extensive financial loss”
Annual Reviews, an academic publisher of multidisciplinary research, was motivated to write a piece on information overload in their industry (PDF), noting the present problem is partly one of removing intermediaries:
“…the removal of the intermediary (typically the librarian, but sometimes the publisher) from the information seeking chain…means we are all librarians now, and have to behave like them—constantly reviewing and validating data.”
That takes a lot of work. Both of these works are from 2011-2012 and since then the continued expansion of broadband and mobile technologies, facilitated by cameras and cheaper access to technology, has only added to the amount of information available. The content generation capacity of the public has increased, the consequences are no different, and the solutions fewer.
Perversely, one of the strategies we use to battle overload is to throw more content at the problem as Tom Fishburne shows in this cartoon. We create greater complexity by adding more complexity. This is the tension. We want to add more information to clarify, rather than strip it away, and end up doing the opposite.
Yet, there may be hope and it is rooted in pragmatism and a desire for beauty: the Dutch design movement, De Stijl.
Designing away complexity: going Dutch
To the untrained eye (which, until a few weeks ago, was mine until I met Corrie van Walraven) the image above would suggest a modern styled home built in the last 20 or 30 years. Rietveld Schröder House, pictured, was actually built in 1924 and reflects a Dutch design ethos that’s continued through to today of keeping things clean, organized, efficient, flexible, and beautiful.
By many standards the Netherlands has shown itself to be an expert in complexity. Holland is among the most densely populated countries in the world, manages to grow food, survive and thrive in a physical environment that shouldn’t even exist (it is, after all , situated mostly under water). They’ve become masters of adaptation, because they’ve had to be. Dutch design reflects much of this and De Stijl is a perfect example.
Though Dutch design has had many facets and movements De Stijl remains popular partly because of it’s ability to create simplicity amid complexity while creating beauty. Beauty in a designed artifact means it has an evident function, but also elicits a positive aesthetic experience. As Steven de Groot’s research has shown, beauty does not only have intrinsically attractive qualities, but its presence in organizations can lead to higher productivity, employee retention and satisfaction, and overall institutional effectiveness.
Beauty provides an experience of positivity, generally free from confusion, and often clarity. It is lack of clarity and the presence of confusion that is what complexity often brings. Anything that can increase the first and reduce the second while remaining adaptive to the realities of complexity (e.g., information seeking you out) and the data stream is something worth paying attention to; that’s where De Stijl and examples like the Rietveld Schröder House provide guidance.
The house, pictured above, was designed to create a fluid, adaptive space that could configure to a variety of situations and evolve over time. It deals with the amount of content — people, furniture — adaptively, within the boundaries of its walls, in ways that preserve form and function, yet do not get bound too tightly to any particular model. Another distinction is that it is designed to provide the least distinction between the indoor and outdoor spaces. Thus, the design feels somewhat less visible through its simplicity.
Coherence within boundaries
What the De Stijl movement does well is integrate complex ideas together, beautifully, and subscribing to a design philosophy that mirrors Dieter Rams’ belief that we should design as little as possible. De Stijl is about creating coherence – beneficial coherence in complexity terms — within boundaries. It’s work doesn’t seek to integrate the outside and inside (indeed, the criticism of the Rietveld Schröder House is that it doesn’t integrate well within the neighbourhood), but it does exceptionally well within the boundaries of its walls.
What we can take from this is the emphasis on internal coherence within our informational and organizational spaces, because those are the areas we can place boundaries. Systems thinking is all about boundary setting otherwise the focus becomes incoherent. This means being deliberate about where we set up our personal boundaries, professional boundaries and learning boundaries, but in keeping with De Stijl, keeping those flexible and adaptive and always moving, yet in a system that strives for coherence. One of the reasons information overload happens is because we have too much to create coherence with and because we’ve lost what our intention was with the information in the first place.
So a takeaway is this: be intentional about what you’re looking for and what you use. Be mindful of the things that give you coherence in your work and life and create a learning space where you can adapt. Strategy and purpose can help determine this — connect to this. Use the principles of Dutch design through De Stijl to design the conditions that support meaning making.
And if you want a great example in the personal realm, check out another creative thinker with Dutch lineage, Leisse Wilcox, on how self-love through better personal, environmental and social design (my word, not hers) can make you a happier person. That might be the best design you can create of them all.
Acknowledgements: A big thank you to Corrie van Walraven for sharing with me a piece on the De Stijl movement that inspired this post. Corrie’s a great representative of how wonderful the Dutch are and her generosity of spirit and great job as a host is greatly appreciated.
Image Credits: Author and Rietveld Schröder House by frm_tokyo used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.