Many years ago I was in an office with a tattooed art director who dressed in Hell’s Angel denim, leather, and chrome long before it was fashionable. Despite his intimidating appearance he was fiercely soft spoken about his work.
One day, dressed in his best Easy Rider regalia, he presented a beautiful campaign to a less than sophisticated client. The ads featured stunning beauty shots of the product surrounded by a great field of empty white.
The client glanced at the work for a brief moment before he started explaining to my office mate all the things they could put in the white space, from a map to phone numbers and addresses to a great big Se Habla Español announcement. After all he explained, “I’m paying for all that #$%@ empty ad space anyway. Might as well fill it with something $@&%ing useful.”
The art director listened for a long noisy minute before interrupting the client’s rant.
“That space is not empty,” he said quietly. “It’s occupied. It provides a buffer to protect your beautiful products from the big bad world.”
The client was dumbfounded. The ads ran the way they were presented.
Artist-architect-philosopher Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said: “Less is more.”
Steve Jobs said: “Simple can be harder than complex.”
And French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
Clearly, simplicity has been an important subject for designers and communicators both before and after my lesson in that ad agency office years and years ago.
The dictionary offers three different insights into the meaning of the word simplicity that also point to why designers would find it such a compelling concept:
The quality or condition of being easy to understand or do.
The quality or condition of being plain or natural.
A thing that is plain, natural or easy to understand.
Obviously, being easy to understand does help accomplish the goal of communication because there is nothing extraneous standing in the way of comprehension and subsequent action.
But wait, there’s more.
Simplicity in design helps create a sense of calm, aids comprehension, and provides an attractive focal point for attention.
Simplicity allows the viewer to concentrate and to appreciate what matters while helping them disregard the rest.
Simplicity separates the wheat from the chaff, the critical from the superfluous, the important from the less so.
Simplicity also insists on responsibility. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright said: “Less is more only when more is too much.” A minimalist aesthetic demands that what is included be absolutely critical to overall comprehension and appreciation.
Simplicity is a technique, a direction, and a goal.
Simplicity is simple but never simplistic.
Thoreau wrote: “Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.”
Thoreau believed simplicity was important enough to say twice, employing an ironic juxtaposition to make his simple point as simply as possible.