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Opinion: The Sophistication of Simplicity

It’s the simple things in life that can bring great pleasure but far too often simplicity can be overlooked in favour of the complex and the incomprehensible. Just try and keep it simple, argues Dave Tallon.

Years ago, I remember sitting in the lobby of a huge local business. The group I was with, suddenly went sheepishly quiet. Heads lowered. I swung around to see “The Don” (the owner of the business) striding through reception. He looked over. We caught eyes. I froze. And he hollered, “you buying or selling lads?”. I’ve had many lessons in simplicity in my career, but this one stuck. Beyond the noise, and the faff, it really was that simple. And at the time, we were selling.

In a sometimes torturously complicated world, simplicity stands out. When you see it, hear it, or touch it, it’s remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that it can feel unbelievable. We think a person’s missed something. Has less of an understanding. But eventually, we get it. They just understand it better than we do.

Here’s some thoughts on why simplicity matters, and how to focus on it.

Simplicity is a lever.

Great things, no….actually, the best things, are simple. Communication, speeches, products, songs, films, brands and ideas. On and on. The really good ones, have simplified. Because simplicity is a lever. And as Archimedes, said “give me a lever and a place to stand, and I can move the world.” Bezos described simplicity as a key competitive advantage for Amazon and wrote in a shareholder report, “Complexity is your enemy. Any time you spend energy on something that is not your core business, its complexity.” Simplicity unlocks greatness, because it allows you, or a reader, a viewer, a customer, to spend more time focussing on what matters. Simplicity is focus, and just like a lever it moves mountains.

Simplicity is finding the essence.

In 1945 Pablo Picasso created a series of eleven lithographs depicting a bull at various stages of abstraction, starting with a realistic one and ending with just a few lines. A masterclass in abstraction. And a demonstration that great art is about seeing the essence of things. Removing the noise. Seeing the simple, basic forms amongst the complex. Seeing the few important details, which convey the majority of meaning. That’s the power of design, of brands and of great communication. They do a lot, with a little. Their simplicity, is a mental shortcut. They give us the essence. The essential. They do the work for us. More complexity, means less of a shortcut. But getting there, takes hard work.

Simplicity is a journey.

Dan Ward outlines the journey to simplicity in his book “The Simplicity Cycle: Simplicity and Complexity in Design”. It starts with an uncomplicated, simplistic view. Then, as you learn more, things get complicated. With so many things to think about, it’s hard to know what matters from what doesn’t. As you gain knowledge, you eventually compress your learnings into their simple essence. They become simple, but not simplistic. And you improve. As Bruce Lee said: “Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.” But there’s a common misunderstanding that more complexity, brings more quality. It doesn’t. It brings less. Over time, the journey towards great, is about complexity reduction. Or as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away”.

Simplicity is hard but worthwhile work.

As Mark Twain wrote “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”. You see it all the time. People who leave their homework in. Background noise. No editing. No compression of thinking. Jobs said “you have to work hard to get your thinking clean, to make it simple. But it’s worth it once you get there.” But, and this is critically important, there’s no short cut. You have to do the work. You have to wade through complexity, to understand it, deeply, and to come out the other side with order. As Churchill said “Out of intense complexities, complex simplicities emerge”. To have a product without screws, Apple’s Jony Ive’s needed to understand everything about the manufacturing process. To deeply understand the essence of a product, so he could remove parts that weren’t essential.

Simplicity is excellence, it’s wisdom, and in general, it’s something you or we, have worked hard at. It should be applauded. As DaVinci said “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. So when “The Don” said “are you buying or selling lads”, he’d been on that journey. He’d done the hard work. He understood the essence of business, and the power of simplicity. And actually, in a weird way, he was being sophisticated.

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