Archives For simplicity

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(Above: image from — Principle 10, Make things open: it makes things better.)

The UK government is leading the way in using design to create simpler digital services for its citizens.

A 2010 report commissioned by the government made a series of strong recommendations, including creating a single ‘front end’ for all government digital services, releasing API’s to government data, creating a central team with absolute control over all interaction experiences for digital services, and appointing a CEO of Digital with absolute authority over user experiences across all digital channels.

Under the direction of Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude, the government followed these recommendations—and they followed them very well. Continue Reading…


I just got back from TED where the content was as great as usual, maybe even better, and the networking even crazier. There were definitely more movie stars around this year. I guess the move to Long Beach is good for them.

The topic of simplicity merited its own session as part of the overall theme of  “What the world needs now”. I have to say I thought the theme worked really well this time and it was nicely reinforced by the stage set which was representative of  start-up attic.

So, back to simplicity. It’s a topic I have covered here before but there were some thoughtful additions from a number of folks this week. The great mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot gave us a potted history of his amazing career which included the discovery of fractals. He asked the question “is there a science of simplicity?” His main point was that simple rules create complex outcomes.

George Whitesides, the most cited scientist around today, proposed a concept of simplicity built around four principles: predictability, low cost, high performance and stackability. The stackable idea was particularly interesting and relates to Mandelbrot’s point. Whitesides showed how things as complex as the inernet are a stack of simple ideas working together. So simple ideas are most useful when they can interact with other simple ideas to create complexity. Back to simple rules create complex outcomes.

Philip K Howard, the legal reformer, made a beautifully simple proposal that could cut through the crazy complexity of the contemporary US legal system. He proposes that instead of judging the law based on its effect on the individual it should be judged based on its effect on society. He has proposed a new form of health court in which a judge appoints technical experts to help him adjudicate civil cases. The argument is that we could save between $200billion and $600billion in US annual health costs by taking this approach.

The last inspirational contribution to simplicity came from designer Alan Siegel, founder of Siegel and Gale. He showed some stunning work he has been doing to simplify IRS forms and bank credit agreements. By taking a human centered approach and by using plain language Alan has created a real breakthrough. I desperately hope this particular form of simplicity will make it into the world very soon.

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.

It has been very gratifying to see the considered comments that have followed some of my posts. I am delighted to see a conversation going on about many of these topics. My approach has been to just let them run rather than making any attempt to moderate or direct. This time however I was so struck by some of the comments on my last post that I felt compelled to attempt a sequel on the topic.

The idea that the reset is more complex this time rings very true to me. Paulo points to a crisis not only of credit but healthy food, sufficient energy and an aging population. The common factor is that these are all resources (including having enough working age folks to support retirees) that are being stressed by our incessant growth. They have now been joined by a lack of economic resource that, as we are seeing clearly in the US election, has jumped right to the top of the agenda.

In the past economics have trumped all other concerns in times of crisis to the point that important issues, such as renewable energy, have lost ground. My question is whether this is going to be the case this time?

It strikes me that one of the contributions that design thinking could make is to help find ways to show the interconnectedness between many of the strands of this particular crisis. Michael Pollan in a brilliant New York Times article, titled Farmer in Chief, did just this when he argued for a new approach to food policy. He connected health, food, economics and energy in a compelling way and helped show how a we might conceive of a system that would positively impact all of these interconnected resources.

I believe there is a real opportunity for a mass change in behavior around our use of resources toward approaches that are more sustainable (and probably more local) with this recession acting as a catalyst. Before this can happen however, as with all systemic change, we first need visibility and transparency. While cause and effect is not clear we will not change our behavior.

Crawford mentions ING Direct as an example of simplicity and transparency in financial services. There is evidence of an increased uptake around services that give new levels of transparency and control. PNC Bank in Pittsburgh recently launched a new service called Virtual Wallet that gives users much more control of how and when cash flows in and out of their account. Apparently it is proving to be a popular offering. (I should declare self interest here and mention that an IDEO team helped PNC with this service.)

Similarly, we need  tools to give  transparency to what energy we use, what food we eat, how we use water, what materials go into the products we buy and use and throw away. Artist Chris Jordan has done a fine job of giving us some insight in aggregate (one of his images is at the head of this post) but we have very few ways of understanding the impact of our decisions at an individual level. It is all very well to know my annual carbon footprint, which is very depressing, but this is backward looking. I need tools that help me make a decision now and show me the implications of that decision over time.