Elegant Simplicity

When defining design principles for a project, someone in the design team will invariably suggest “simplicity.” The drive towards simplicity is understandable: simplicity is often cast as a desirable trait. Simple sells. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Keep it simple, stupid.

But simplicity per se isn’t a good principle. Things can be simple and also inadequate — if you leave out the wrong things. Some things are inherently complex; reducing them to a simpler state can compromise their usefulness or sacrifice their essence.

In most cases what you want isn’t plain simplicity but a simplicity that is appropriate to the problem at hand. You want elegant simplicity: to do the most with the minimum resources (or components) necessary to achieve a particular outcome.

Elegant simplicity is graceful. It embodies efficiency and skill. It’s also hard, since it requires that you understand the system you’re working on and its intended outcomes. Once you do, you can ask questions: What’s essential here? Which components are critical? Where do I focus my efforts?

Appeals for elegant simplicity abound. Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Lao Tse: “To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.” (Attributed to) Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

These aren’t calls for us to hack about arbitrarily at problems. Instead, they speak to intelligent use of materials and ideas; to understanding the point beyond which simplification compromises desired outcomes. It’s a central principle for good design — and for life.