Simplicity in Design, an Unlikely Source

Artist / Illustrator / Author Christoph Niemann wrote a elegant piece in a recent New Yorker on simplicity in design. Nevermind that he was talking about the story of designing his strangely addictive app Petting Zoo; it’s a universal lesson that we all struggle with. His words are best read by clicking on the link, but if you can’t bear to click away, this is the crux of it:

As an artist you have to try new things. You have to experiment, and not care about whether the new things actually make sense. You can sketch and plan all you want. But, to discover new territory, you have to get your hands dirty and benefit from the flaws and accidents. Eventually, however, you may arrive at a point where even well-meaning minds won’t be able to get your idea, let alone realize that there even is an idea to be gotten in the first place.

That’s where you have to bring out the ruthless editor in you, who takes that idea and cuts it down…to its core.

Simplicity is not about making something without ornament, but rather about making something very complex, then slicing elements away, until you reveal the very essence. After all the slicing away, you may realize, now that you can clearly see the idea, that it’s actually not very good.

That’s the hardest part: letting go of an idea that, having spent a number of passionate nights with, you have fallen in love with. Even with a certain amount of routine, this letting go sadly doesn’t become easier. The natural instinct then is to rely on what you know is working. It’s unfair, but this is the surest path to boring and predictable results.

The painful and inevitable struggle remains to create in a childlike and openhearted manner, but to be un-wistful and cruel when judging one’s creation.

We have dozens and dozens of products that have gone through this internal struggle. Some emerge from this wash cycle as cleaner, simpler, and better. Others, once scrubbed, are still just not very good. We’ll never be boring and predictable, but that means it’s even more important to be able to let go of ideas that aren’t very good. 


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