One of the mottos of my work is “eloquence through simplicity:” eloquence of communication through simplicity of design. Simple should not be confused with simplistic (overly simplified). Simplicity’s goal is to find the simplest way to represent something, stripping away all that isn’t essential and expressing what’s left in the clearest possible way. It is the happy medium between too much and too little.
While I professionally strive for simplicity in data visualization, I care about it in all aspects of life. Our world is overly complicated by unnecessary and poorly expressed information and choices, and the problem is getting worse in our so-called age of Big Data. Throughout history great thinkers have campaigned for simplicity. Steve Jobs was fond of quoting Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Never has the need for such a campaign been greater than today.
A new book, Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, by Alan Siegal and Irene Etzkorn, lives up to its title by providing a simple overview of the need for simplicity, examples of simplifications that have already enriched our lives (e.g., the 1040EZ single-page tax form that the authors worked with the IRS to design), and suggestions for what we can all do to simplify the world. This is a wonderful book, filled with information that’s desperately needed.
In 1980, a typical credit card contract was about a page and a half long. Today, it is 31 pages. Have you ever actually read one? Do you know what you’ve agreed to? Or more directly related to the focus of this blog, you probably waste a great deal of time each day wading through endless choices in software to find the few things that you actually need. For example, how many different types of graphs do you need to build an effective dashboard? Rather than the libraries of a hundred graphs or more that you’ll find in most products, I advocate a library of eight that satisfies almost every case. Software vendors fill their products with more and more features, whether they’re useful or not. Why? Because those long lists of features appeal to buyers. The designer John Maeda, however, observes what I’ve also found to be true: “At the point of desire, you want more, but at the point of daily use, you want less.”
That incomprehensible 31-page credit card contract can be distilled down to a page of clear information. The authors of Simple have done it. We could be spending more of our lives actually living and less time navigating endless confusion.
Not everyone wants simplicity, however. Some organizations and people thrive on confusion and use it to take advantage of others. We shouldn’t put up with this, but we do because we don’t think it’s possible to fix. It’s not impossible, but it won’t be easy.
We can’t all become crusaders for simplicity, taking on the challenges of improving government, the legal system, banking, and healthcare, but we can all do our part to simplify our own lives and organizations. To find out why this matters and how it can be done, read Simple. “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” (E. F. Shumacher)