Simplicity, Complexity and Contradiction in Design



Belatedly I finished John Maeda‘s book, The Laws of Simplicity, which outlines ten laws for balancing simplicity and complexity in business, technology and design. In effect he is building on the “Less is More” principle, popularized by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (originally spoken by Robert Browning in 1855.)

I’ve been a long admirer of the concept of simplicity. In architecture and the arts, simplicity was often called “minimalism” or even “modernism”. At the turn of the last century, in reacting to rampant pluralism of styles, and trying to come to terms with industrial production and the embodiment of socialist ideals, modernists rejected ornamentation and sought more fundamental architectural values. They stripped architecture down to it minimal functionality. Works by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier of the 1920’s and 1930’s exemplify this movement.

By the 60-70’s simplicity had become stylized to the point that some reacted against its “over-simplification” burden of stylized, soul-less modern architecture. The vanguard of this reaction was Robert Venturi‘s compelling 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. In this book, the author call for a return to richness in architectural meaning, and the embrace of inherent contradictions of the human condition. Unfortunately what they started was the beginning of the often misguided and cacaphonic post-modern movement in architecture.

Maeda’s book mentions this cyclical relationship and rhythm simplicity and complexity have towards their coexistence. We seem once again to be drifting towards the simplicity extreme again these days.

What I liked the most about Venturi’s book, isn’t so much the complexity part, but the contradiction part. I think we are bound to live with contradiction. This is a part of what makes us human. I love simplicity but I value complexity. Fractal rules are so simple yet they reveal a deep complexity. Humans are wonderfully complex but driven by very simple hopes and loves. I see it all the time within me and in my children.

It seems that Maeda tries to dig deeper to a more spiritual plane. What he write seems more than a series of observations that can be translated into techniques for product development or organizing your desk. It is less a series of laws to abide by and more a series of conversations worth engaging in, with our very being, in search for a deeper meaning.

Vittorio Gregotti, Italian architect, architectural critic and former editor of Casabella has a whole chapter entitled “On Simplicity” in his 1996 book Inside Architecture. Here he muses: (my italics)

…to me simplicity is not simplification, and above all not simplification as a formal model. Eloquent simplicity can be reached through great effort, but it is never a good starting point, nor above all, an objective at any cost. Architecture is not simple; it can only become simple.

…Simplicity must make contradiction itself clear and compehensible without denying its existence and its value as a material for establishing difference.

Gregotti talks about simplicity in the context of architecture, but it can equally be applied to product design or design of online services. What he seems to be getting at is that we should not strive for simplicity for its own sake. This will end up being another misguided stylistic overture or even worse, end up denying the a meaningful part of our existence.

The future of simplicity seems to be in its ability to work with complexity. Industrial production techniques nowadays allow for simple, personalized variations in design. (think iPods inscribed with personal messages before delivery). Websites deliver, in simple form, personalized information that is in fact generated through complex algorithms and make use of immense processing power.

Great complexity belies anything of great beauty or meaning.

Leibniz once wrote:

The infinite fold separates or moves between matter and soul, the facade and the closed room, the outside and the inside.

Infinity that is enclosed in a finite space. Now that’s a simple and complex idea, if not a pure contradiction.

  • Mike Lee

    Nice post! I guess you heard the news about John leaving the Media Lab to become president of RISD?

  • Nam-ho Park

    Mike, I did hear. It seems like a very interesting move for him – I hope he keeps his strong ties to technology at RISD.