Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication

DDD_AppleLogo“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

While Leonardo da Vinci is widely recognized as having coined this pithy phrase, in our day, Steve Jobs is known for having used this mantra to define his company’s visual appeal. Most of us, when we think of the sleek, sexy products that Apple has developed over the last 20 years, we recognize the wide-reaching appeal that simplicity has had on our society.

Jobs was a fascinating (if not at times a cruel and odd) human being; his creative genius, what most of us will always remember him by, directly influenced the video game industry (Atari), animated film industry (Pixar), printing industry (Xerox), telephone industry, music industry, and, of course, the computer industry. Think about it! His life affected nearly all of the technologies we use on a daily basis! Many would argue, at the root of his influence was the insistance on simplicity.

In our society, in the current era, simple design (and lots of white space) has become synonymous with sophistication. When we see Mac products, we think “expensive,” “status symbol,” “sleek,” “awesomeness.” An interesting design principle, “horror vacui” (which is Latin for fear of emptiness), suggests that busyness in design decreases the perceived value of a produce or place. In other words, if a design or place is crowded or noisy or filled to capacity, we tend to interpret the product or location as inexpensive (think of the busyness of Wal-Mart’s website, for example). If, on the other hand, white space and emptiness reign in the design, we think of sophistication and expensive (consider Tiffany’s website).

But does simplicity equal effective? That’s the crucial question. Repeatedly, usability tests have found Apple products and the Apple operating system to be more confusing and less usable. In Apple’s case, their designs have appealed to customers so much that the usability issues have been forgiven. The same can be said of the Mini Cooper car—kind of quirky design flaws, but it’s simplicity speaks sophistication and people love it). But if Wal-Mart starting communicating “sophistication,” would it improve their bottom line? Perhaps, but it might also push away bargain shoppers.

In my design classes, students always want to say “simplicity is key for all designs!” Sure, simplicity has its place, but so does complexity. There are many times when designs ought to be complex, and sometimes have to be (maps of complex areas, like amusement parks, for example aren’t necessarily simple—but that doesn’t mean they can’t be understandable).

So the takeaway? Simplicity in design is an effective marketing tool for certain products; it does tend to speak “sophistication,” but be careful not to associate “sophisticated” with usable or effective.

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