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June 9, 2012

Can it be simpler?



  • Research shows that 95 percent of people do not use 90 percent of the features on their video-recorders – because they are too complicated. What can you tell about a family where the clock on the video recorder is not flashing? They have a teenager in the house.
  • In one country small businessmen have to cope with 16,000 laws in order to carry on their business.
  • In another country the tax laws run to 40,000 pages.
  • In another country the farmers rioted because they could not understand the new laws they were supposed to obey.
  • It is said that Ken Olsen, the founder of DEC, once complained that at home he had a microwave oven that was so complex that he could not use it.
  • An old woman spent a week in a shopping mall in Holland. She could not find her way out. She bought food during the day and slept on a bench at night.
  • Instructions for machines, computers, etc., are always written by those who know the system and are not much help to those who do not. Have you ever seen a sign on a road reading: ‘This is not the road to airport.’ Those who know the system cannot imagine the problems facing those who do not.
 There is often a much simpler way of doing things – if you make the effort to look for it. Simplicity does not just happen.

This is the opening page of the book ‘Simplicity’ by Edward de Bono (considered as one of the finest thinkers of our time). An excellent book, not only for anybody who design, but also to any who faces umpteen choices or decisions to make. We have a general tendency to complicate things, though a much simpler solution is available. Electronic goods manufacturers in Korea consciously introduce complex functions onto their products, with minor or no significance, just to make it appear better than its competitor (and it works there!).


"SIMPLICITY IS HARD WORK IF YOU DO NOT KNOW THE SUBJECT VERY WELL."




Simplicity in architecture has much finer dimensions. It, practically, makes great economical sense as well. But why most of the architects (including yours truly) do not pursue simplicity?

Simplicity can be achieved in the way one thinks about the project and its brief, in the process of conceiving and detailing, in the way the drawings are made and information exchanged, in the way of construction happens and in a lot many other processes involved till the completion of a project (and of course post completion too). Instead, like the Korean manufacturer, architect prefers to do it the ‘complex’ way. A fitting conclusion is arrived when he chose to explain his project. Most of the time, the ‘architectural jargon’ is intended to confuse, if not mislead, the layman. One could easily get examples - just pick up the latest national or international magazine. Corbusier put it right: ‘I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies’.



De Bono continues to find why simplicity is hard to find.

‘Simplicity is hard work if you do not know the subject very well. With simplicity there is nothing to get your teeth into. With complexity there is always some ragged edge somewhere which you can bite on.

So someone who dismisses something as ‘being too simple’ may simply be demonstrating his or her ignorance of the subject. Critics do it all the time.

There is also the underlying fear that the role of interpreter will no longer be necessary if the matter is simple enough for ordinary people to understand and use. Academics feel a great insecurity about this.’


Extracting concepts is one of the key processes of simplification.

The ability to form concepts, like almost all the excellent behaviour of the human brain, arises from poor engineering. An engineer could never have designed the human brain. An engineer would have thrown out all those features which specifically give the human brain its immense ability.

Concepts arise from the inability of the brain to form precise images. Who would want a camera that only took blurred photographs? These blurred images form the concepts. At the same time the brain has dynamic processing – it uses ‘water logic’, not traditional ‘rock logic’. Traditional logic is the logic of identity: ‘What is this?’ Water logic is the logic of flow: ‘Where does this lead to?’ This allows the brain to have all the benefits of blurred and fuzzy processing and at the same time great precision.

Concepts have to be ‘general’, ‘vague’ and ‘blurry’. That is their function. In that way you can move out of a concept in many possible directions. If a concept is detailed and concrete you cannot move anywhere.

People, especially Americans, tend to be impatient with concepts, precisely because they are abstract, general, vague and blurry. This is what makes concepts such powerful ‘breeders’ of practical ideas. Those who are impatient with concepts do not seem to realize the difference between a concept and an idea. There is no intention of using the concept in a practical action sense. The purpose of the concept is only to ‘breed’ ideas. The ideas themselves do have to be concrete and usable. You cannot stay at the concept level all the time.' 

You can find the dangers of 'surface-deep' conceptualization in the post 'Concept: a Myth?'

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'Then there is the danger of oversimplification.

Oversimplification means that you have simplified the matter too much and have left out important aspects of it. The oversimplification is not wrong, but it is inadequate because it is incomplete. There are those who believe that some modern architecture has gone too far in its drive for elegant simplicity.

When does the process of simplification have to stop?

Simplification stops when the values derived from simplification are balanced out by the increasing loss of other values.’


I wish I could make this post ‘simpler’ so that the power of the idea could be easily (and completely) transferred.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci

4 comments:

  1. Good reading .....but would have more appreciated if you had kept it more simpler regarding the "SIMPLICITY " Cheers :)

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  2. I would have loved to do that. But, unfortunately, the subject is so complex that oversimplification would have led to incomplete information.

    Btw, in literature, I am a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway and the way he simplifies literature to convey his ideas(more effectively). The simplicity of his prose is deceptive. Hemingway called his style the 'iceberg' theory: the facts float above water; the supporting structure and symbolism operate out of sight. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  3. Hi...
    Just thought of sharing an example for those who know or have heard of the Parumala church. The present design by Charles Correa is very simple, too simple in fact, that it serves the function very well. But if we still check with our elders, it is no close to its predecessor in the feeling and satisfaction it gives when you are in it.

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  4. Nice observation Mani.!

    Coincidentally, I was there a few days back. I used to visit the place as its nearby my house. I could understand your concern. In fact, I was about to write about this particular project for some other observations!

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