In defense of simplicity

Recently two notable design advocates, Don Norman and Joel Spolsky, challenged the value of simplicity in design, and I’m here to offer a late defense.


It’s easy to confuse success with quality, and both articles discount our secret inability to make satisfying choices. We are attracted to things with more features, that cost less, or come in larger quantities, despite our inner suspicions that we’re likely to complain about those purchases soon after. We date people, eat food, take jobs and buy products for superficial, misguided reasons all the time. We’re easily seduced, and every marketer knows we always have been and always will be.

But we shouldn’t confuse the success of feature-laden crap as a signal for the irrelevance of simplicity any more than the success of Rocky IV and Burger King signaled the irrelevance of good film-making or fine dining. It just means there are gaps between what we need, what we want, and why we buy, and that the masses are by definition less discriminating than the niches of people with refined tastes for a particular thing.

Joel points out that the i-pod’s success involves factors other than simplicity – but this is true for all products and all things, including failures, successes, complex and simple things. This isn’t an argument in support or against simplicity’s value: it’s just a sound statement of fact – many factors irrelevant to product quality impact success.


There are many things in the world that sell well on simplicity: they’re just rarely market leaders. You can find a quality brand that tends to simpler solutions in every market, and at various price points: Bang & Olfsen or Bose, IKEA or Crate & Barrel. These are not the revenue generators Panasonic or WalMart are, but there you go. They exist as viable businesses based on (the attempt at) simplicity. Musicians like Jack Johnson and The White stripes make straightforward, “here i am with my instruments” music, and have done well by avoiding the trappings of over production. They’re not top 20 stars like Brittany Spears or Justin Timberlake, but they deliberately chose not to be.

And then there’s food: what could be simpler than the experience of fast food? McDonalds and Taco Bell even make meal deals: a single number uttered from the comfort of your car, and a swipe of a credit card, brings warm food in minutes. We are convenience junkies and literally die for simplicity, as the thousands of people who find putting on seatbelts or going to the gym too complex or inconvenient to save their own lives.

We all desperately want simplicity. But we’re so well trained to consume that we impulsively expect to buy our way there. We believe to the point of faith that we’ll be complete, or have a simple life, if only we buy the right combination of products.

The trap of visible features

The real trap that consumers are in is that we want proof for what we’re paying for, and engineers and marketers know it. They sell ease of use and simplicity on the back of every box and in every ad: but they also sell it in the products themselves, trying to show ease of use in added buttons, options and the superficials of quality.

Great features do not require user interfaces. If the engineers are thoughtful, they can add code that eliminates the need for UI, instead of adding to it. This is much harder and requires smaller egos, but a great v3 needs less UI than v2: eliminating setup, configuration, simplifying designs, automating things successfully so that users don’t even need to know of them (not just automating my interaction with things). This is much harder and requires real innovation, but is too selfless and long term a philosophy for most to swallow.

zippo.jpgInstead designers and engineers are all too happy to stroke their egos by fighting for their little do-dad, the little button, the in-product advertised feature name, Auto-this, Intellii-that, a signifier to the world for what they worked on all year. And they’re encouraged to do so by marketers and sales, as those visible things make the release easier to sell. But it’s a suckers game and after we buy these things we know it and the the designers know it too. They know it when they hold a Zippo lighter or write in a Moleskine, well crafted things they desperately fetishize: they know they’ll never make something with that much design integrity in their entire lives.

Connoisseurs of anything discern between trash and class. They know that understatement is class’s hallmark: it’s a product, person or design that knows it has substance, and does not need to go far out of its way to prove itself: its core is good. This is part of what drives the lust for Apple’s aesthetics. The trash, the wanna-be, the knock-off has to parade distractions, buttons, gadgets, and modes to compensate for its lack of core design integrity.

But who has the time to become a connoisseur before making a purchase? How much cash is the average person willing to spend for quality for something they don’t know much about? Not most of us, not most of the time. Which explains why mass market leaders are often simplicity demons: they betray the idea of good design by relentlessly abusing our ease of seduction and shoving the pretenses of good design, the magic tricks not the substance, in our smiling faces. Until we’ve been burned by a kind of product, or have never seen the real thing, we don’t think we need to look carefully at the alternatives.

Stupid word semantics

Both articles use the words simple and complex in various ways. If it takes me 30 hours of preparation to make you a cupcake, is that complex or simple? The process of creation might be complex, but the result can still be simple, and vice-versa. The semantics get messy fast.

The way out is experience: if the consumer wants to experience something complex, say a jigsaw puzzle, then the ideal design is a puzzle that provides that experience in the simplest way possible. Any challenge that wouldn’t interest me, say fighting my way through bullet proof plastic wrapping, has been eliminated or reduced.

As Mark Hurst points out, complexity is often desirable if it’s the experience customers desire. Ask a software developer or an airline pilot if they want complex levels of control: of course they do. But they don’t want complexity that annoys, or that distracts them from the experience they want. Simple design doesn’t mean brain death: it means being being as simple as necessary to achieve a great experience for a group of people, but no simpler.

If this missive wasn’t simple enough for you, LukeW has a nice summary of all the recent simplicity blogging.

19 Responses to “In defense of simplicity”

  1. Noah Brier

    I really dig the last line Scott (well the second to last I guess). My issue with simplicity/complexity has been the idea that it’s good to blindly follow either.

    To me it’s about finding an elegant solution: Something that does what it needs to do with only as much as it needs to do it.

  2. Mark Denovich

    I thought a lot about complexity a few years ago when I setup my home theater system. I sat on my couch, dB meter in hand, pink noise alternately streaming from 7 different speakers thinking: “How many consumers ever do this?”

    Even though I had opted for a HTIB (home theater in a box) it still was an all day effort to dial everything in. What bothered me most was the myriad of sub-optimal solutions I could have mistakenly employed. Do I choose: HMDI, DVI, Component, S-Video, or Composite, RCA, SPDIF, or Toslink for audio, what dsp selections, which speaker orientation & delay settings, and so on. Most defaults defaulted to the worst (most compatible) settings. Enabling 480p output from the DVD player (the player’s major selling point) required changing a parameter that was buried deep in a on screen settings menu structure.

    The experience left me with the suspicion that a vast number of high end TVs and audio systems are crippled by poor configuration by the purchasers. The bulk of my friends now have fancy TV setups, but I’m the only one I know who calibrated the color on the set.

    For me there is no question, that I value simplicity over complexity, and I think that holds true for most people (who are results oriented.) I believe the problem here (in your post, and the ones it references), is that complexity is being confused with control. I love control. But control exists on a completely different axis than complexity. It is due to design limitations they tend to be linked (more so in poorer designs.)

  3. Scott (admin)

    Great point on control vs. complexity.

    I agree complexity often impersonates control – and we’re drawn to the feature lists because we think it will give us not only more control, but more power (look at the amazing things I’ll be doing if i buy this thing).

  4. Joshua

    Just a note that it’s a Mokeskine, not a Mokeskin :)

  5. Joe Fulgham

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said it best when he said “The designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

  6. Tom

    This sounds quite a bit snooty; the customer is always right, except when he wants things that I don’t think are any good.

    You can deride Panasonic, Wal-Mart and the Rocky series, but belittling their audience for not having Good Taste is not much of an argument for anything.

    “But we’re so well trained to consume that we impulsively expect to buy our way there. We believe to the point of faith that we’ll be complete, or have a simple life, if only we buy the right combination of products.”

    Wow, how is that you are so self-aware, yet the unwashed masses are still so deluded?

    Maybe most people actually know what they want, and why they should want them, and the things they buy are, while far from ideal, still the best approximation towards that.

  7. Scott (admin)

    Hi Tom:

    I was careful not to say that Rocky IV, Burger king or Brittany Spears were bad or wrong. I said that their success doesn’t mean that other kinds of films or food aren’t also successful or valuable.

    In fact I happen to like the Rocky series. I’ve certainly seen 1-4 more time than I can remember.

    And the quote you offered does use the pronoun ‘we’ – I’m just as deluded (and definitely as unwashed) as everyone else. Never claimed otherwise.

  8. Software monkey

    Everyone decides, in each domain of their life, whether they want complexity and performance or simplicity and convenience.



  1. […] 11th, 2007 · No Comments Simplicity strikes back in this post by Scott Berkun on the recent debate on simplicity versuscomplexity. I’m not sure that I agree with all his points, but I am certain that this is an important discussion, that will shape how people think about design for the coming decade. I like this quote from Scott’s article: Ask a software developer or an airline pilot if they want complex levels of control: of course they do. But they don’t want complexity that annoys, or that distracts them from the experience they want. Simple design doesn’t mean brain death: it means being being as simple as necessary to achieve a great experience for a group of people, but no simpler. […]

  2. […] Juist de laatste maand is er naar aanleiding van een blog post van Joel Spolsky (Simplicity) een discussie ontstaan over de werkelijke waarde van eenvoud als product-eigenschap. Don Norman valt hem bij: Simplicity is Highly Overrated – terwijl Scott Berkun een lans breekt voor eenvoud: In defence of simplicity. De iPhone is voor mij het voorbeeld van deze bedrieglijke eenvoud als kunst van het weglaten. De kern van de Philips slogan: sense and simplicity – waargemaakt. […]

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