Complexity is Highly Overrated

2006 December 31

Chris Baskind sent me a link to his interesting post on interface guru Don Norman's article Simplicity is Overrated. I had been asked for my opinion on Norman's article in the past, but never gotten around to doing it until now.

I don't disagree with Don. Simplicity really is highly overrated. But complexity is highly overrated as well. The relationship flips when one becomes dominant, and the other becomes subjugate. This is why the fifth Law oflaw5 exists -- because simplicity and complexity are two sides of a coin. With only one, and not the other, the world becomes a less interesting place.

Don's most recent book on Emotional Design epitomizes his later-life realization that there might be something unscientific called "beauty" that can trigger positive and necessary law7-s. One way to look at it is that there can be an internal-beauty and an external-beauty to an object. We can think of the internal as representing the rational elegance of an object; the external can represent the irrational emotive power of an object. The internalreality is closer to an objective truth; the external reality is closer to the subjective truth. In essence, external-beauty is a kind of deception that can be done well (subjective truth) or poorly (subjective falsehood).

All outcomes of capable artists or designers manifest as "illusions" -- whether that illusion be sensorial or purely conceptual. The correct combination of patterning and colors can make a large person look thinner; strategic placement of makeup can make a person look ten years younger. Whenever we play with reality we are always cheating a bit for the sake of making ourselves, or others, feel better. If you are a person that sees the world as needing to be red or blue--not purple, chocolate or vanilla--not chocolatey, wet or dry--not damp, true or false--not both ... it will not be easy to accept the goodness of a positive lie. And I'm fine with that as well.

Simplicity, as expressed by LOS, is a set of methods for lying about the complex world. Another way to look at it is that LOS is a way of coping with the complex world. Thus I like to think of simplicity as a kind of life-preserver for managing the complex world around us, that is likely only to get more complex in the future.

In essence, Don's telling us that both simplicity and complexity are important which ... can ... seem ... a bit ... confusing ... and as a statement is complexity itself. So the world makes sense. 2007 is almost upon us. And we we can continue to think out loud about our wonderfully complex world with the lens of simplicity.