The Simplicity Paradox: Simple > Complex > Simplicity

The Simplicity Paradox: Simple > Complex > Simplicity

“When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop. But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem — and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.” – Steve Jobs.

That’s one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes. It does a great job in capturing the counter-intuitive nature of how simplicity is harder than complexity.
I’ll go one step further and create the following framework:
Simple > Complex > Simplicity

This framework applies to many facets of life, certainly beyond product development.

Simplicity is elegant. It’s easy to work towards. It’s easy to understand and to sell. But there’s a big difference between simplicity and simple in this case. Once you get over the complexity hump, the solution seems obvious, and seems like it could have been achieved without the work of going through the complexity hump. In practice that’s not the way it works. Truly elegant solutions are the result of fighting through complexity, and are rarely single insights.

Here are a few examples:

The iPhone is perhaps the greatest example of this framework. After the original simple telephone, which let you simply dial and speak, companies went on a feature arms race to continually add new features. Address book, speed dial, calendar, etc. And phones got to be very very complex. And technology companies relished in that complexity and tripped over each other to add features and more complexity. Then the iPhone came along, the result of pushing through the complexity limitation, and ushered in a new era of phones.

In politics we’ve recently seen a similar situation. Romney’s Tax Plan is in the “simple” category. Easy to sell and explain and put into sound bites. But it doesn’t have details because it hasn’t started actually trying to solve the problem. On the next step is Obama, who is so mired in details that he can’t convey a vision for his plan. His terrible performance in the first presidential debate last week showed this. He was trapped in the complexity of the details, trying to explain and resolve real deep challenges to make this all work. Now compare this to the polished arguments of Clinton’s DNC speech, where he accurately portrayed the key issues on both sides, in a simple way that people could understand and relate to.

The same is true in architecture, one of my passions. All architecture started as simple housing and shelter. Then continued to get more complex and decorative. This decorative trend culminated in the Beaux Arts School (literally and figuratively) of architecture. Architects tripped over themselves to add more details and ornamentation the way Samsung and Acer add faceless “specs” to tech products. Then came the modern movement, led by the Bauhaus school, which focused on simplicity. Elegant solutions to challenging problems. And this style and philosophy remains the most elegant in the world. Have you wondered why an Eames chair designed in the 50’s looks more contemporary and futuristic than an Aeron chair designed in the 90’s?

And finally, we see this same trend in the growth of knowledge. Things start as simple: thy sky is blue. Then get complex: because light refracts at that particular wavelength due to the molecular composition of our atmosphere. Then as you really understand things, a new simplicity emerges. The understanding that chemistry, physics, and biology are not separate disciplines, but different ways of looking at the same physical world. As Einstein put it so elegantly: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.

So whether you’re explaining something, designing something, or building something, keep this in mind. Don’t be naive and think things are simple. Don’t be lazy and let yourself stay in the complex. Work towards simplicity.