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?