Earlier this Spring, two old friends—John Maeda, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, and Alexander Gelman, a graphic designer who heads the New York-based Design Machine—held a conference at MIT to examine the concept of simple design. Not just removing buttons, slimming down screens, and shrinking interfaces, but taking a radical look at how we can break free from infoglut. To find a future where technology consistently makes sense, fulfills the soul, and keeps us coming back for more. If only things were so simple…
Maeda: I’d like to say this about simplicity: it very much comes out of a displacement of digital artistry. It’s hearkening back to a larger artistic perspective, some kind of very basic simplicity, which is a goal of digital life, a yearning to be normal again.
Here’s what I mean. I grew up in a blue-collar family, and I remember one day at MIT getting on the elevator. They were doing construction on the first floor of the lab and there were concrete walls being broken down and plastic stuck in the concrete. So I asked the guy who was working on it what he was doing and he told me that MIT is built on top of landfill and that plastic is how they stop seepage into the building. And I thought to myself, from his perspective, why should I care? I’m clearly a white-collar worker, he’s a blue-collar worker, why should you care? What I realized is that in the white-collar world there are very few opportunities for friends because it’s very competitive, very surface-oriented, it’s about wealth you have to accrue; whereas in the blue-collar world there isn’t very much money so your friends are your wealth, your community is your wealth. I thought: y’know, I’m glad to be blue collar. There’s something simple and plain about being in touch with people around you. And the same is true for machines. I think people’s need to find simplicity hearkens back to those good ol’ human relationships. Humans are communication animals, so we need to have good communication.
Gelman: You see, when you talk about complexity, you are really talking about accumulation. If you accumulate, complexity has to become the goal. Why am I wearing a watch? Because I want to know the time or because I need to look expensive? So one way of thinking about simplicity is that it constantly asks the world: Why? Why am I doing this?
DigitAll: Is style the enemy of simplicity?
Maeda: Absolutely not. Take simplicity in the Japanese sense. There, style is the cleanest, most perfect goal: wa. Another story. When I was in Japan, I went to see a friend who is a tea master. One day he made tea for me, and part of the tea ceremony is enjoying the cup, the stirrers, the tea canister to hold the powder. Well, his canister was made in the 17th century, and when you open it, there’s no friction: The top fits the canister with a perfect seal. And this is from the 17th century! There were no machines to make this kind of magic! It was so refined, so shaped, and functioned at a level that really defined how we might conceive of a style of simplicity.
Gelman: That’s a really good example. When you have a simple solution, things just work. They don’t require new features moving forward. You give the design qualities that you know will make that simple object better over time instead of adding new features.
DigitAll: So, two definitions of simplicity: Authenticity and making things better for the soul. But how do we know if today’s simplicity is tomorrow’s complexity, or vice versa? I don’t believe we’re equipped with the barometer or historical knowledge to know which is which.
Maeda: That’s what we’re after: the barometer. Even if it takes 20 years.
Gelman: I like simplicity, but subtraction is a more comfortable word for me. It’s not about the results, it’s about perspective. Results can be pretty complex, but if you are focused on where functions make sense and are relevant to what you need, then you’ve achieved your goal whether it’s simple or complex.
Maeda: Simplicity is just a god to worship. Right now, the only people interested in simplicity are those who specialize in simplicity. Companies are attracted to it but once they’ve realized it, they often start to forget—and then they have to search for it again. They’re too motivated by their stock price.
DigitAll: Bill Gates probably thinks Microsoft Office is the simplest way to accomplish tasks in the work setting.
Maeda: You see, everyone thinks that way. They talk about optimization, which is a function of complexity. Yet at the same time science believes that simplicity is the holy grail.
Gelman: It’s only when we start talking about simplicity that we realize that it is impossible without complexity. If you want to drive your car without thinking about anything, then you support very complex hardware to accommodate the simplicity of your navigation. In this sense, simplicity is a constant challenge between you and what’s relevant, what’s essential, what’s needed. You could say that the formula of simplicity for a successful product from a user’s perspective is simply great joy and understanding.