A guide from complexity to simplicity

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In my previous post I discussed that designs should be simple. That instead of asking ‘what can we add’ we should ask ‘what can be removed’. This is true for software development as well as all other disciplines that include design. But if it is that simple, why doesn’t everyone do it?

Seeing things differently

When we are young, we have vivid imaginations. We see monsters under our beds, pirate ships in the living room and we can be on the moon. Society, and education in general, has done a great job in unlearning this ability as we grow up. No longer do we marvel over the fact that cars can drive, boats can sail the ocean or even that planes can fly around the world. Because we can understand it, it is all rationalized. Gone are the miracles.

This is something artists somehow maintain. They can still be amazed by what appears to others as mundane. They see things that others do not see. For artists, there are still miracles in this world.


Piet Mondriaan is a famous Dutch painter who made his most notable work in the early 20th century. This is one of the most renowned works he ever made.

The composition is very simple; it contains only horizontal and vertical black lines and primary colors. But Mondriaan did not start out with this simple composition. Rather, he started out painting life-like compositions. From there he took several steps working toward his final style.

1. Expressionist representation of a tree

2. Removed colors, black lines, more coarse brush strokes

3. Re-added colors, in patches, thinner strokes

4. (Almost) only vertical lines, lighter coloring

The above works show a progression in Mondriaan’s work as he seeks simplicity. Continuously he removes things that are unnecessary. Sometimes he makes a wrong decision, which he will correct in a later work. A good example is removing the color, then later adding it again. Each time, the composition is simplified, but not less a work of art. The compositions retain their dynamic feel, they are by no means less interesting.

The artistic journey

Simplicity is not a goal, rather it is a journey. At any given moment, improvements that you make will not yield the perfect result. They will result in a new version, which is better than the previous one in some aspects. This new version will also inspire you to simplify other aspects that you would not have thought of before.

Creating something simple doesn’t usually start out with something simple (unless it has very few features perhaps). Rather, it is an iterative process in which the artist or designer must endure that the journey is endless. And that any improvement leads to an even better understanding of how to simplify further. To really make things simple, we have to adopt this process into the development process.

Like it or not, we are all artists now.

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