You’ve heard it a million times: Keep it simple. But few understand the effort that goes into simplicity. Oftentimes, people look at simple as the beginning, but in reality, simple is the end.
Take, for example, this quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Looking beyond the misogynistic language of the early century, this philosophy gets to the essence of simplicity, and how to achieve it.
Simplicity is a journey.
As we’ve evolved, the path to simplicity has become saturated. We are adorners, and create confusion with add-ons. We build layers on simplicity and fail to expose the essence of the idea. And finding essence is not something you stumble upon — it’s a journey.
Achieving simplicity is difficult. But if you are determined to make it simple, there can be no other path. For many, simplicity is the villain of the process and the hero of the execution. But understanding the journey can get you on the right path.
Here are 5 insights to get you on your way.
1. Simple requires work.
Sometimes a simple expression is wrongly correlated with the lack of effort. In fact, the most gorgeous things in the world are born of the simplest elements. It’s about harmony and awareness. It’s doing a lot, only to express a little. It’s why a Rothko painting — even though apparently just one color — is so incredibly moving. It forces you to understand the process to appreciate the beauty. Or as Frédéric Chopin put it, “…simplicity emerges as the crowning reward of art.”
2. Simple is a fight.
The fact that we covet simplicity speaks volumes to the world we live in. We are not simple beings. We have complex brains. We are all beasts of excess. There are parking signs on top of parking signs, overly detailed product manuals and bloated remote controls. For us to achieve simple, we must fight our own excess. And we must prepare to go 12 rounds with ourselves.
3. Simple is ruthless.
Get ready to take off the gloves. Simplicity is unforgiving and uncaring. It respects labor, blood, sweat, and tears by wanting more. It wants worn-down fingers and bloodshot eyes. It wants your soul. That’s what simplification is about. It’s not artifacts or flourishes. It’s giving your creation purpose. If it can artfully survive in it’s least decorated form, simplicity has been achieved.
4. Simple is science.
Occam’s Razor states that the explanation with the fewest assumptions should be selected. If an element is inessential, it is meaningless. But knowing what to remove and what to keep takes work. And often work on top of work. It’s distillation. It’s concentrated. It’s about iteration, collaboration. Ask yourself: Is there more to refine? Does it feel right? Each step should not be about proving yourself right, but trying to prove yourself wrong. When you feel finished, take a break, and enlist other opinions. Then improve more. Simplicity has no ego, and neither should you.
5. Simple is natural.
David Bernoulli, a Swiss mathematician, said, “Nature always tends to act in the simplest way.” Our ideas should follow the same path. Simplified creations exist without the need for explanation. They feel natural. They belong. And when people feel joy from seeing your work, or interacting with your creation, that is the reward.
So the next time you have the opportunity to refine an idea, don’t try to add, try to subtract. Because the hardest thing we will ever do, is make something simple. That’s why so very few achieve this complex feat.