Simple or minimal?

October 26, 2009 — 41 Comments

There is a discussion going on amongst some of my colleagues about the merits of minimalism versus simplicity.

My own view is that minimalism has come to represent a style and as such is limited in its usefulness. It represents a reaction to complexity whereas simplicity relies on an understanding of the complex. This is an important difference. One is about the surface, about the stuff. The other is about our experience and requires a deep appreciation of how things work so as to make them just simple enough.

Minimalism is often all too obvious while great simplicity can be practically invisible. John Maeda of course talks far more eloquently than I about simplicity in his book of the same name.

I often look back to design history to find the best examples of simplicity. Sometimes it is the result of great restraint on the part of designers but sometimes it is a result of the limitations of technology. One example of just such an historical example is one that I personally experience every time I drive my nearly fifty year old Porsche 356 in the dark. With any modern car I find night time driving a disembodied experience with a Times Square like display of instrument lighting acting as a barrier between me and the world through which I am driving. My ancient old Porsche has no such isolating display. Instead I can see two crescent shaped slivers of light emanating from the headlights on the front edges of the hood. These perfectly designed beacons help connect me to the world outside in an elegant and efficient way, as well as helping reassure me that both lights are functioning properly, and are a result of the careful positioning of the edge of the headlights. Simplicity at its best.

Tim Brown

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41 responses to Simple or minimal?

  1. As a information technologist I find both simplicity and minimalism very interesting concepts. In many cases developing a simple interaction design requires large amounts of complexity under the surface. However, the complexity under the surface contains levels of order that are in themselves minimal. Much of my recent work has been exploring the minimal patterns at different levels of order. For example, a gas, a liquid, a solid, a metal, a crystal are all different levels of order with their own minimal patterns as well as a “zero” transition point and an “infinity” transition point.

    I think simplicity, complexity, minimalism, medialism, maximalism all have a role to be considered in design. They are divisions of the continuum in an object’s states. Do not attempt to exclude any of them. Instead learn how to harness the full spectrum.

  2. I think it’s just a matter on the meaning you associate to the two words “simplicity” and “minimalism”. In some situations they can mean exactly the same thing, in others they express the difference you’re explaining.

    A common explanation of minimalism states that “the subject must be stripped down to its essentials”. It’s also very similar to the one described on the Wikipedia page about minimalism.

    As you can see, this definition will apply to many disciplines, and it’s quite similar to the “simplicity” definition by Maeda: reduce, differences, trust, the one (laws: 1, 5, 8, 10).

    The search for essentials, while acknowledging complexity, is something that in my mind belongs to both the terms.

    The difference is that one started in design and architecture, the other in arts and architecture. That’s why “minimalism” often it’s perceived as “superficial”. :)

  3. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci

  4. “Simplify, simplify.” Thoreau, Walden, 1854. Another way to find a good source of examples is to step outside of history and into nature to consider a myriad of tried and true designs. I’m sure you’re familiar with this but http://www.biomimicry.net/ provides an enlightening source and perspective for discussions of minimalism and simplicity.

    I agree with your view that minimalism is a style. Usually applied after the initial concept is realized (and formulated or copied), the “ism” at the end of any term is usually the tip-off.

  5. For myself, I use minimalism and simplicity as two points in a design process. As I begin a design I strip away all the decoration and distractions in the message and the layout. Getting things down to the essentials. When I feel I’ve done that successfully I look to add, if necessary, elements that enhance the emotive quality of the design. I do that in an iterative process, adding and deleting until I’ve arrive at a balance point that feels right. My criteria for judging these emotive elements is simplicity. I ask myself, “is it still simple and clear?” or have I added noise that disrupts the design. Sometimes I stay very close to minimalism, as a style. Yet I’m always striving for simplicity.

    Good post. Good comments.

  6. Good post. Excellent comments. When simplicity in design is done well it’s almost unnoticed by many people which leads to a degradation of value by some assigned to good simple design. Don’t have a 50′s porsche myself but I do love the simplicity of design of my very basic motorbike. Boy it’s lovely to get back to basics.

    Striving for simplicity? Yep, I’m up for that!

  7. Here’s how I see it:

    Simplicity is the opposite of complexity. When something is complex, it is difficult to understand. When something is simple, it is easy to understand. Complexity and simplicity are concerned with the number of features, how intrigite these features are intertwined, and how these features are presented to the user. Simplicity is a standard requirement for (almost) all interfaces.

    Minimalism is a form of design – more than just a superficial style. It has an agenda. Its goal is to communicate the essence or essentials, in order to let the user experience purity and elegance. It does this by leaving away all forms of decoration (in that sense, minimalism is not ‘reductionist’ – it is ‘non-additionist’) and limiting itself to basic geometric shapes, honest materials, and clear surfaces.

    The iPod is (still) a good example of minimalist design. I uses basic geometric shapes (two rectangles and a circle) and apart from the Apple logo on the back, the body is free from decoration.

    And then there’s the clickwheel. It combines multiple buttons into one, and releases tons of features without ever having to lift your fingers once. Now is it ‘simple’ or ‘minimalist’? Neither. It is just very smart.

    Again, these are my definitions of minimalism and simplicity. But the more I think about it, the less important these labels seem. Because that’s what they are: mere labels. So let’s change the topic – and talk about performance instead.

  8. I think the word missing from all of these discussions is elegance. Sure, simplicity often is equal to elegance, or an ingredient of elegance, but in this day of designing for complex, multilayered, multimodal interactions, elegance is often more achievable and appropriate than simplicity.

    For example, take a look at many pieces of Flickr, or the iPhone. They’re both elegant, but they aren’t simple. They’re both rich, deep, and 95% of people probably use 10% of the functionality available. Comparing them to your fifty year old Porsche, or my old 1968 BMW 2002 is comparing apples to unicorns. And yes, modern car interiors tend to be atrocious!

    Minimalism for the sake of minimalism doesn’t make sense – it’s just a style. Nor does simplicity for the sake of simplicity make sense. But to design something elegant, which often will be minimalist and simple, is a goal for which I always strive.

  9. Uh well, I think that the iPhone is quite simple. That’s why often I prefer using the term minimalism: it doesn’t imply simplicity, but just an essential logic. Yes, I don’t think it’s a “style” (while sure, it CAN be applied to style). But I digress. ;)

    ~

    Why the iPhone is simple? Because it abstracts a very complex task in a simple and elegant (you’re right! elegant!) way: the dasboard and the menu.
    I think that it’s one of the best parts of the UI and one of the most undervalued, since once it’s there… it’s so obvious you stop seeing it! :)

    It beats also the way we manage software on out “advanced” computers: one UI to manage both app access and the app itself (as “files”)! The Mac at this time is the most simple, and still requires DMG, drag’n’drop, the dock, …!

    ~

    Elegance is a critical element, I agree. The same interaction is worse without elegance, because it changes the perception of the UI itself.

  10. @scottrcrawford October 27, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    I find myself nodding, simply. I’m sitting here in a ’53 cal ranch, noting the difference in feel. It’s simple, to be sure, but feels more of a minimalist statement than functionally simple like the 356. Along those pcar files, I love that my dusty, old track worn 86 carrera has that sublimely simple door – the door that could not be improved upon for 3 decades. It draws no attention to itself. It cares not that surrounding fenders and bumpers and tails and flares have come and gone. It wouldn’t know the meaning of the word minimalist. It’s too simple by half.

    Thanks for the nod and smile.

  11. @Gino,

    Indeed the missing word is ‘elegance’. Thanks or pointing that out.

  12. Once again another insightful post. I’m with you on how you characterize “simplicity” whether that is actually “elegance” or not, the concept to which you refer remains the same. Indeed, I’m finding that when I design a solution or a participatory exercise, I’m often asked to make it into a “toolkit” or a “template.” Like your Porsche, Gino’s BMW, or indeed the 1967 Italian-made Harley-Davidson with which I recently parted ways (but indeed not too far…it’s with my brother), these solutions which appear “elegant” or “simple” house complex underpinnings. Those who experience the solution may not be the ones who are capable of building or understandings of the complex underpinnings.

    I like the notion of elegance…as well as a thought of deceptive simplicity!

    Cheers again for a great post.

  13. I view simplicity as the goal and minimalism as one possible avenue to reach it. Something that is simple is direct and doesn’t make me scratch my ahead about what it means or what I’m supposed to do. Sometimes, but certainly not always, minimalism is the best way to make the final goal clear. My desk is this way for example. By constantly throwing things away and keeping my desk clear I find it easier to focus on what I’m there to do. It’s a minimalist way of reaching simplicity, but other times minimalism can make design or interaction seem starved and lacking in options.

  14. I recently experienced an interesting offshoot of simplicity in a cafe. The napkin holding system at this particular place had created a forcing function requiring patrons to slow down and approach the task of getting a napkin quite purposefully.
    Getting a napkin within this deliberately constrained system had a profound affect on me; grounding and calming. My post on this experience is at http://www.portigal.com/blog/monotasking/

  15. [[I thought I had submitted this on 26th; not sure if you decided not to make it public. If so, my apologies for resubmission]]

    Frankly, to a layman mind, minimalism and simplicity could as well be synonyms. However, I agree that minimalism is usually reactive while simplicity could be proactive as well.

    May be Porsche’s dashboard design was a conscious decision by its designer Ferry Porsche to get away from any flashy dashboards that existed at that time (minimalist design) or a deliberate attempt to keep things simple for a performance-oriented car (simplistic design) or maybe it was just a carryover design from its predecessor, the Volkswagen Beetle (which Ferry’s father had designed).

    Volkswagen dashboard:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DSCN076.JPG

    Porsche 356 dasboard:
    http://auto.howstuffworks.com/porsche-356-pictures-specs1.htm (look for 3rd photo from top)

    In fact, I’d say Volkswagen had a much simpler (but then again provided lesser information??) dashboard.

    On a different but related note, I personally LOVE driving. On several road trips that I took in the night, I found myself spilling coffee over myself quite a few times while attempting to drink coffee – the vent on the lid of the coffee cup was not easily visible in the dark and taking eyes off the road seemed risky. To overcome this, I put a luminescent marker near the vent every time I bought coffee… the side vision of our eyes is powerful enough to locate the vent without actually having to take the eyes off the road. Simple!

    I later realized that the design could be extended to help blind people as well. To find the vent, they must be moving their finger around the lid which can be inconvenient or worse unhygienic. If the coffee cup design was such that there some perforation below the vent on the body of the glass, the person could find the vent by just holding the glass.

    [BTW, that IS a lovely car!]

  16. Mr. Brown, can you provide a photo of the way your lights look in the dark? No photos will driving necessary, but it would be interesting to see this in action.

  17. “There is a simplicity that exists on the far side of complexity…”

    I love this expression, it is attributed to Patrick Buchanan, a US politician, although I don’t know the context, when taken literally it provides sound guidance for good design.

    Great designers really understand this, they will iterate and test and iterate some more till they really get to what they need to leave in and no more. Others less attentive leave us scratching our heads in confusion or remove too much for stylistic minimalism.

  18. It depends how you define things. I have been dealing “simplicity” with exactly what it’s defined as “minimalism” here. If it’s complex than it’s not simple. That simple!!

  19. We have all experienced things that have been redacted, reflecting a minimalist’s view of the fewest things that may be necessary for that experience, but still found them to be complex to understand. (e.g. abstract art.) Simplicity is a reflection of the user’s understanding of their interaction, while minimalism describes and reflects the designer’s approach.

  20. “I often look back to design history to find the best examples of simplicity.”

    Tim…perhaps you are confusing simple and minimal with nostalgia and sentimentality…no?

    Taking a “look back” is a comfortable memory exercise that eases the most stressed out, problem solving daily life of any designer that wishes to make a mark in this world…

  21. “Elegance = the multiplicity of variables over the simplicity of solution.”
    Rolf Faste

  22. Daniel Christadoss November 2, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    I believe all great designs start in a minimalistic fashion. We are first thinking of the final function and the most economical method in terms of resources and time to achieve it. At that point the design is proven and we make it simple for the user to use.
    For example giving the example of “The recent design project of a production line I have been involved in”. The advantage in starting in a minimalist fashion is to be able to trouble shoot the process easily. Once we have achieved this we increase the level of automation and make it simple for the user. The inner workings may be complex but if well structured can be simple to troubleshoot. Many production lines are really custom and one offs. So this is a departure from traditional design of consumer products where there are many users. As the line matures the level of automation or elegance of design increases and the user or operator finds it simpler to use.

  23. But what of time (date) of the design? Your fifty year old Porsche 356 was far from simple for it’s day. How does the Porsche of fifty years ago compare to todays Porsche, or how will the Porsche of today compare in fifty years?

  24. Thanks an interesting read Tim! Got me thinking ))

  25. In my line of work as a product designer working for individual inventors, I often find that unfortunately clients don’t appreciate simplicity. Time and time again I talk to clients who insist on adding complication to their ideas with more and more functions that are unnecessary to the original uniqueness and usefulness of the idea.

    In the real world of a product design consultancy that has to please clients to get paid, there is a careful balance to be made between designing simple products, that as you pointed out are infinitely preferable, and producing a concept that the client is pleased with. Often I feel that when we present a simple solution the client is secretly thinking “Is that all?” Unfortunately simplicity in design is sometimes viewed as laziness.

    Philippe Starck is fantastic at simplifying designs as seen on a recent TV series aired in the UK. You can read about his simplictic design approach on my blog: Product Design blog | Philippe Starck

  26. Tim,

    I think you have struck a chord here and everyone has made excellent points.

    It is interesting how complex achieving simplicity and its definition can be.

    For example if we think about the solution for longitudinal navigation the number of men who worked on it and the years devoted to it were immense. Yet in the end it was discovered that a clock for knowing GMT and then measuring the inclination of the sun to know the time where you were would give you the difference and consequently your longitudinal coordinate. All the complexity yielded a simple a – b = c.

    I am currently thinking about the standardization of graph coordinate systems. It contains illustrations so I will give the link:

    http://blog.grant.czerepak.net/2009/11/05/zero-one-infinity/

    We have a vast array of coordinate systems, scales and units of measure, but ultimately they are just different levels of granularity. I think it would be a great step to take all of them and come up with a single scale and coordinate system to represent them. You could call it a Porsche of coordinate systems.

    Then you take the mathematics of all of these systems and standardize them to a single coordinate system as well. We are already doing this with computers to some degree by going binary. However, visual representation, units of measure and notational systems should pursue the same end. It doesn’t dumb people down, it frees them to deal with complexity we haven’t handled yet.

  27. Great piece on simplicity and minimalism. Great string of comments as well. I deal with a lot of complexity as a corporate troubleshooter helping senior business executives solve big, hairy, audacious problems. I find the simpler I frame a problem and alternate solutions, the more clients can see their ways through. In these situations, simplicity is a mechanism to cope with complexity. I haven’t tried a minimalist approach yet but I know I will soon. BTW, I have a ’67 Porsche 912. 4 cylinders = more minimal than 6. Oh, my blog …
    http://strategicchange.wordpress.com

  28. Have to admit, I m curious about Design Thinking. I am currently studying Systems Thinking at the University of Pennsylvania and as a result see many parallels between the two. Was wondering is some that frequent this blog could answer a few questions. See below…

    What does the term Thinking” imply in the term “Design Thinking?”

    How does the term “Thinking”, in the context of Design, relate to, or conflict with, the Systems Thinking paradigm?

    How does Design Thinking leverage Systems Thinking concepts?

    How does Design Thinking prevent its use on symptomatic (vs. systemic) problems.

    I what way has Design Thinking emerged out of the principles espoused by Russell Ackoff?

    What other thought leaders can the Design Thinking movement attribute is emergence?

    Thanks for any input.

    Regards,

    Dennis

  29. I think minimalism implies that you are working with the minimum amount of functionality needed to get a job done.

    Simplicity in design edits out all the noise and distractions that take away from the primary function of the item.

    A minimalist will not have an ice scoop in their house when a spoon can do the job almost as well. Someone who believes in simplicity may have an ice cream scoop, but not a pig shaped one that oinks when you use it.

    Great thought provoking post. Thanks.

  30. I only half agree with Tim; I think it’s a bit simplistic (ha, ha) to view minimalism in terms of surface and simplicity in terms of extracting clarity from complexity. Minimalism is an artistic movement: it consists in editing out of the art anything that does not belong. Its objective is to isolate the art from its surroundings to make it more visible. It’s not just about style and certainly not just about surface; it’s about purpose and perception. On the other hand, it’s true that many current car models add unnecessary complexity just as a marketing ploy. I wouldn’t view all old cars, however, as symbols of the age of simplicity and innocence. Perhaps more useful to this discussion and to the point, I think it would be important to make a distinction between formal, functional, and conceptual simplicity.

  31. Some random thoughts about simplicity and minimalism.

    I am fond of saying “Simple is not easy”. I have found that keeping things simple can be quite…well…complex. Stripping objects, ideas, processes, lifestyles, etc. to their essential elements, can be a challenging task, requiring lots of sometimes difficult decisions.

    I love the “Less is more” statement attributed to Mies van der Rohe. I think that there is a richness of experience in the simplest solutions that is lost in ones that have unnecessary layers of complexity. (i.e The spartan 50 year old Porsche that makes driving feel more real).

    I use the term “minimalism” to describe an approach to design dedicated to the altar of “less is more”.

    In Italian, the term “minimalism” is often translated into “essenziale”…or “essential”. This, I think is a way to say that whatever is being labeled as minimalist has “no more, no less” than necessary. In this case, the object, idea, process, lifestyle, or whatever else is being described by the word minimalist, stands for something that is stripped down to its essential elements. Therefore, it is being “simplified”. So…I would venture to say that minimalism is a manifestation of simplicity….although simple things don’t always have to have a minimalist aesthetic.

    So…in conclusion: Less is more…simple is not easy…and this posting is way too long!
    :)

  32. I really like this discussion. As an architect, I’m always trying to find the simple, effective place to developing design strategies which solve multiple design challenges with a few simple, elegeant moves or strategies. It’s hard to resist adding things to design. It’s much harder to reduce the noise or distraction of extra elements or ideas. It takes the ability to edit and distill. Often there is not enough time to fully do this. A way to address this is to work in teams of effective wide thinking designers and stakeholders to scrub through all of the possibilities through a collaborative process together and find the reductive zen solution nobody by themselves can see.

    An favorite drawing teacher gave us a drawing assignment when I was an undergrad which may be familiar to some which I still remember today. Draw a highly detailed and complicated still life in a studio setting with a live model with paper and pencil. Get really excited about the outcome as a student and think you’re done. ….Then tell all of the students to find their erasers and start erasing lines to find the essential attributes and white space in the drawing which infer the idea of the drawing without extra lines. What’s the least amount of lines required to communicate the idea?

    It’s a great example for me in seeking design simplicity, while not being about minimalism which seems more like a fashion or style and not about design thinking or strategies.

  33. Minimalism should be precisely controlled, since it could cost the functionality.
    I think one of the best example is the apple mouse(vs normal 3 button mouse).
    Some people might not agree, but users have to use their left finger to press the Ctrl key with the apple mouse click in order to do the same function as the 3rd button click of normal 3 button mouse. Those people usually end up changing their mouse. We see sometimes the functionality is sacrificed by the designer’s obstinacy to being minimum.

  34. “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction” – Albert Einstein

  35. I think simplicity and complexity are opposite to each other. When something is simple, it is easy to understand. When something is complex is not easy to understand. I deal with a lot of complexity as a crew trainer for new employees. I put complex situations in simpler solutions, the new crew member see through it and end result we have very less turnover in employees.
    I think people should use this formula to cope with complex situation in professional and private life. I never tried a minimalist approach because I never had too

  36. Tim,

    Interesting topic for sure but I think we are mixing chalk and cheese when comparing minimalism and simplicity. Not withstanding discussions on definitions and associations, minimalism and simplicity serve two very different human needs

    – Minimalism serves a human need to declutter, it is a matter of cognitive perception. Affinity/ reaction to minimalism therefore varies significantly with different personality types

    – Simplicity on the other hand serves a human need to leverage past learning and reduce the learning curve in everyday interactions. Since different people segments have differing varying of familiarity with everyday objects, tools and processes what is simple for one segment may not be simple for other. The challenge for designers therefore is to understand the learning/ experiential baseline that a target segment of people possess and create new designs around that baseline. This is why simple products have a competitive advantage in the marketplace – people already intuitively know how to use the products and demonstrate their gratefulness by voting with their wallets.

  37. Wonderful post and wonderful selection to illustrate the point. I agree that the best design is invisible, leaving only the seamless integration of function and person.

  38. I do have to agree with you Tim, when I think of minimalism, I think of boring and expected. On the other hand, simplicity is involves a complex level of thinking.

  39. simplicity and minimalism speak from the same tenet. the distinctions are mere variations from the mindset that ‘plays’ to offer an assortment of possibilities.

    is there only one kind of poetry?

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  41. I couldn’t resist commenting. Well written!

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