Thursday, October 05, 2006

Simplicity Galore

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” Albert Einstein once famously said. This has an especially poignant edge to it in this age of infoglut where cramming more features into a puny gadget is the order of the day. And yet we are unwilling to do more, preferring to stay above the interface and opt for ease of use -- no, strike that and make it -- the simplest to use. In short, we want both complexity of function and simplicity of design, the resolution of which has helped push up the stock of many a design house, be it consumer electronics, automobiles, or just about anything that has become an extension of our physical senses if not mental faculties.

At least one derivative of “simple” often connotes reduced capacity or diminished capability as in simpleton, which according to Encarta is “an offensive term for somebody regarded as lacking intelligence or common sense. Then who can forget the apparent contradiction in the refrain less is more. While simplicity can certainly evoke a sense of parsimony (less), the resulting elegance can often be awe-inspiring (more).

According to Wikipedia, “simplicity is the property, condition, or quality of being simple or uncombined. It often denotes beauty, purity or clarity. Simple things are usually easier to explain and understand than complicated ones.” No argument there, except this is where simplicity begets complexity. Charles Mingus, the American jazz bassist and composer, can certainly identify with the need for simplicity when he was quoted as saying, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity.”

One paragon of simplicity is the Google search page where open space abounds. Google understands that simplicity is both sacred and central to its competitive advantage. In coming out with the uncluttered look, Google definitely understands and provides what we need, but at the same time does not pander to what we want as that will be endless.

Less commonly known is perhaps the so-called test of Occam's razor, which posits that all other things being equal, the simplest theory is the most likely to be true. The principle recommends selecting those competing theories that introduce the fewest assumptions and postulate the fewest hypothetical entities. This is analogous to the use of fudge factors in mathematical modeling where less, fudge factor that is, is better.

In his book entitled simply Simplicity, the world renowned motivator, Edward de Bono of the lateral thinking fame, argues eloquently for the case for simplicity and provides us with a framework to do so. John Maeda, a computer scientist at the MIT Media Lab dubbed “the Master of Simplicity”, has written a book, The Laws of Simplicity, which I’ve not read. But a glimpse of what to expect can be gotten at his blog. To name just a few that I can empathize readily:

A complex system of many functions can be simplified by carefully grouping related functions.

The positive emotional response derived from a simplicity experience has less to do with utility, and more to do with saving time.

The more you know about something beforehand, the simpler it will ultimately be perceived.

And one that particularly resonates with me:

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, while adding the meaningful.

And to end this rambling on simplicity that I ardently subscribe to, here is a quote attributed to the German polymath, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine.” How profound!