Sometimes Less Really Is Less

From time to time someone characterizes my work with the phrase “less is more.” (Sometimes, those who enjoy wordplay incorporate my name into a variation of this expression — “Few is more.”) When I hear this, I always cringe a little. I have never used this expression to characterize my work or design philosophy. Even though the spirit of the phrase is in many ways consistent with my work, it is an oversimplification. While it is sometimes true that less is more, it is also sometimes false, depending on what is lessened. Less of something that is useless is definitely more. For example, less distraction in a data display produces greater perceptual efficiency and often more understanding as well. In fact, the better expression when referring to useless content or embellishments in charts is perhaps “none is more.” Less of anything that is useful, however, is never more when it’s incomplete.

This applies especially to complexity, which often exists in information. Complexity is neither good nor bad in and of itself. Necessary complexity — that which is meaningful and relevant to the task at hand — is useful and should therefore never be eliminated or even reduced. Instead, it should be managed. When presenting information, we manage complexity by finding the simplest possible way to display it, never crossing the threshold into over-simplification. This can often be done by breaking the information down into logical and meaningful parts and presenting each part separately at first. Once your audience is comfortable with the parts, then you can combine them, perhaps one at a time, to build up to the full level of complexity in a way that people can absorb without ever being overwhelmed. Sometimes we can manage the complexity of a wealth of information by the way we organize it. For example, several concepts and facts that relate to one another can be organized on the page or screen in a way that makes the nature of the relationships clear. This is what we’re attempting when we organize text into an outline to reveal the hierarchical relationships that exist between parts of the content.

The expression “less is more” fails because it often ignores useful complexity that exists in information. Less of what’s useful is not more. More information is only more when more is needed. Less information is only more when less is all that’s needed. Need I go on?

Take care,

4 Comments on “Sometimes Less Really Is Less”


By Chris. July 17th, 2012 at 3:13 am

An interesting perspective!

People designing these reports or reporting systems are techies and nerds, not visual data communication experts. It would be like having an architect build a house from beginning to end. An amazing design, but likely mediocre construction at best. Similar to BI reports, amazing at getting the data onto a report/screen, mediocre at taking that data and translating it into information for the user.

We are still in the phase of report clutter. Not many people talk about efficient use of screen space in conveying information. And this is unfortunate as we would if that space had a dollar value. Considering it is less efficient and effective to communicate poorly, it does have a dollar value.

Although ultimately incorrect, I think “less is more” is reasonably appropriate. Many people look at your work and that is what they see, less… and a new approach.

I haven’t explicitly used that term for your work, but I think it is the three best words to sum it up. Quite frankly explaining it with more than three is incredibly difficult… and I have tried! :)

Keep up the great work!

By Andrew. July 17th, 2012 at 9:47 am

@Stephen:

“Less is more” is just a sound bite, and is prone to the typical problems associated with sound bites. Kudos to you for rejecting it.

@Chris: “People designing these reports or reporting systems are techies and nerds, not visual data communication experts.”

It’s funny you say that. Over the years, one of my constant gripes over IT solutions has been needless complexity. Obviously some complexity is necessary when developing software, but too often programmers tend to over-complicate things when a simpler design will not only work, but be easier to implement and support.

In fact, I’ve noticed a trend in IT similar to the trends Stephen constantly points out here regarding visualization, so when data displays are designed by IT people none of what Stephen complains about is surprising:

- Some programmers use the wrong tools for certain tasks; that they would use the wrong charts for certain data should be no surprise.

- Most programmers like to be inventive (a virtue, when properly applied), and many will stubbornly commit to a design that they invented long after it stops satisfying the user’s needs; that they would devise and stubbornly defend “artistic” visualizations of data that do not facilitate understanding should be no surprise.

- And getting back to my original point, many programmers tend to over-complicate things without realizing it; that they would do the same with any other task, including data visualization, should be no surprise.

I suppose there is a difference though: programmers rarely design software to be too simple, while it is easy to do this in data visualization.

“Quite frankly explaining it with more than three is incredibly difficult…”

I’ve posted the following here before, but I figure it is worth repeating. It’s the phrase I usually refer to when advocating simplicity, and as they aren’t my own words you are free to use them:

“You know you have achieved perfection in design, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupery

By Terry. July 17th, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Less is more.
Corollary: None is most.
I think it must have been said once and it sounded clever. It may have even been true in context. Then someone took it and made it into a rule.
It’s abit like “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. Really? There are a lot of people who have survived diseases or near fatal accidents who are not stronger. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s nonsense.
And it illustrates the obligation on the sender and receiver of information to think and not accept the glib or the glossy at face value.
Love your work.

By Louis. August 13th, 2012 at 4:28 am

“Less is more” is usually attributed to Mies van der Rohe and in his context, that of early 20th century architecture it was a valid point. Stripping away surface detail and monumentalism-for-effect (the “less”) led initially to buildings that had their own dignity and were “more” impressive than many of those that came before. Unfortunately the concept was debased as the century progressed and modernism became an excuse for ultra-cheap and undisciplined building all over the world.

I think less is more still has real currency as a reminder to resist the natural human tendency to freight anything we produce with unnecessary extras to “add value”.

As Stephen says, the less in this context is not less information where that would give an incomplete picture, but less frippery in displaying whatver information is needed.

Excellent blog this.