The dying art of simplicity

28 Feb
February 28, 2013

I’m a really big fan of LinkedIn and recently noticed that one of the members had the wonderful job title of “Complex solutions consultant”.  This got me thinking – what is complex?  And why can’t complex be simple?


Complex systems, complex lives, complex products.  Complex is a word that dominates our lives and one that we often associate with things being better or more intelligent or something that we really need.  Even in our personal lives we readily talk about relationships by saying, “Well, it’s a bit complex really …”

But complexity doesn’t have to take hold of our lives in the way we allow it.  We can do things in a simple way and, as we all know, simple things tend to work.

But if simple is so good, then what stops us making the transition from the world of complexity to one of simplicity?  What stops us developing simple solutions, simple processes or simple products?  Perhaps it’s that we just can’t be bothered!

At the top of this post is an image showing a great quote from Leonardo da Vinci where he famously said “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  How wonderfully true.  In some cultures simplicity exists as an art form.

In Japan, for example, ikebana – or living flowers – is the art of Japanese flower arranging.  Unlike many of the large, complex arrangements we are used to in the west, ikebana is all about simplicity and minimalism and the bringing together of nature and humanity.  I mention ikebana because although the results look very simple, it takes a great deal of time and skill to achieve this simple yet harmonious result.

Business context

When all’s said and done, business is also very simple.  Create a product or service that customers want – sell it at a reasonable profit – and look after your customers.  That’s about it.  But so many businesses continue to make this simple recipe so complex.  It can be difficult to contact some businesses, almost impossible to obtain information and even more difficult to get problems resolved.

Businesses not only develop complex products, they also develop increasingly complex processes that supposedly “support the business and customer” – utter guff! It doesn’t have to be this way.  Businesses can develop simple products and simple processes – but only if they choose to do so.

The difference between complexity and simplicity – just time, effort and determination.  It’s always easy to write about Apple; after all, they are still very much at the top of their game and also – at the time of writing – one of the most valuable businesses on the planet.

We desire the products that Apple develops; we cherish the fact that the products do not require massive user manuals; we adore the fact that their devices readily connect with each other and are beautiful products to touch and use.  But Apple only produces products we crave so much because it works relentlessly at making them as simple as possible.

Apple senior vice-president of industrial design, Jony Ive, has been credited in no small way to the rise and rise of the Apple brand.  Jony is a master of simplicity who views Dieter Rams of Braun amongst his greatest influences.

In a PC Advisor interview Jony said: “Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that’s a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That’s not simple. The quest for simplicity has to pervade every part of the process. It really is fundamental.”

We can respect Apple for the simplicity they bring to their products but Apple doesn’t have a monopoly on simplicity.  What about our much maligned banking sector, for example – what examples can we learn from here? I’ve banked with First Direct – the telephone and internet bank – almost since the day they first established themselves in the not so trendy financial centre of Leeds.

Despite their name, First Direct were not the first telephone bank – that honour goes to Girobank but First Direct came to the market with an easy-to-access and no frills service.  And after a number of years how are First Direct getting on?  According to This is Money,  First Direct are at the very top of their game, being voted the best bank for customer service.

I mention First Direct because their service is simple.  Even when I recently thought I’d lost my wallet, First Direct managed to sort out all my new credit and debit cards with just one empathetic phone call.  By comparison my business bank – NatWest –could not deal with my request so simply.  The credit card was on a different system to the debit card and this required a call to a different team, all of which added to the stress.

First Direct won hands down. And why does First Direct win?  Because they have spent considerable time and effort working out what a typical customer may need and then making sure this is supplied in the most simple and elegant way possible.


Business is only complex because we make it so.  But it can be so different.  Businesses that spend time and effort to simplify their products and services will always win in the long run. It’s time for us all, as business professionals, to simplify all of our products, services and processes because the time spent in achieving simplicity will deliver massive rewards in due course.

Call to action

Take time to review all your products, services and processes and do all you can to simplify them.

And finally

Today, 28th February is the birthday of Jony Ive.  Thanks Jony for dedicating your efforts to bringing us all simple and wonderfully effective products.

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