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Simplicity and Design

I have emphasized the issue of Complexity in Design before in this blog.  It is an ongoing and critical aspect of understanding Excellence by Design.

In the talk above, George Whitesides does a nice job of providing a very simple introduction to Simplicity and Complexity. Excellence by Design requires the designer to be adept at using simplicity to create complex capabilities through what George refers to as stacking. A not new concept, he just reminds us of the basic value of using small elements to build bigger things.  He also tries to define what ‘simplicity’ is.  Interestingly he defines it as:

  • Cheap (low cost, so easy to reuse on a massive scale)
  • Functional (must provide some utility)
  • Reliable (does what it says with extreme predictability and consistency)
  • Stackable (has some characteristic to enable easy combination/connection with other things)

Although George claims little study has been made of the subject of simplicity in general, the use of stacking is certainly not new.  It is a basic concept that engineers (whether mechanical, chemical, or information technology) strongly use as a fundamental part of their jobs.

I might say however that typically engineers strive to 1) ‘shorten the distance’ from building blocks to complex solutions by using the highest level building blocks they can (use a light switch off the shelf instead of redesigning and manufacturing your own light switch) and 2) seek to build complex designs that are predictable and stable not emergent.

Said another way, the traditional (engineering) way man has viewed simplicity and complexity is to SHORTEN the ‘distance’ between the two needed to accomplish a SPECIFIC result.  What this yields is less understanding of the truly simple building blocks, in favor of using a more complex one.  No problem if the issue is of some type that lends itself to a ‘static’ goal, like building construction.

But below is a vastly different presentation discussing the effects and factors that have contributed to the destruction of ocean life.  The ‘distance’ between the most simple elements of ocean life, and the ultimate effects it will have on life on our plant, is obviously a huge challenge to understand because it is a dynamic, emergent system without fixed,  predictable results.

Moral of this post: In business, when considering how to achieve Excellence by Design, the designer must be careful to understand whether the solution they are designing is really

  • one best served by shortening the distance to a specific/static solution


  • one that must enable dynamic/emergent behavior

or some combination of the two…

This ability to determine what level of ‘simplification’ to use, and how, and the effects it will enable, is a very challenging task.  It would frankly, be a great subject for a college course in advanced design…but perhaps we’ll get to that level of detail another day.

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