A guide from complexity to simplicity

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.

Design for Simplicity

It is 7:30 and I am just about to step into the car and go to the office. Suddenly, the alarm of the house goes off. So I turn off the apparently false fire alarm. So far so good …

But here’s the problem. Somehow our alarm system needs to be told that there was a false alarm. Failing to do so, it will go off again after a minute or so. Turning it off was simple enough, but telling it this was a false alarm proved very challenging…

This is an alarm system that is pretty similar to what we have at home.

It took me 20 minutes to figure out how to do it, while consulting the manual…

Another simple example

Here is another example of making something simple very complex:

I don’t know about you, but I usually just flip the channels and fiddle with the volume. Now I know most televisions are capable of a lot more, but it seems strange that I need a manual describing what every button does…

Where it goes wrong

The problem is not that people don’t want to make things simple. To be honest, most of the buttons on that remote control are pretty simple. You press them, they do something. There are just too many of them.

The alarm system has the same problem, and another. The buttons change functionality. So in one situation a button does one thing, but in another situation it does something else. That confuses the user immensely.

The products in both examples are, at some level, simple. At some point the remote control people will have said ‘every button should simply have 1 function’. Awesome, great rule. Where they went wrong is that they cramped the TV with a billion features and gave every feature a simple button.

The design team at the alarm business did a great job in not adding even more buttons. They just didn’t see how confusing it is for a user if a button with a certain icon is suddenly used for something completely different.

How to make it simple

These companies have given in to adding more features in the same way they did before. And I see a lot of companies doing that. They are asked to add a feature, and they naturally add something to the system, usually in the form of a button or a function.

If you want to make things simple, ask a different question: “What can we remove?”