The search for simplicity, continued

Almost six years ago, I tried in The Economist to start a movement for simplicity and against complexity. In this Leader (ie, editorial, to everybody but us), which accompanied this Special Report, I wrote:

“LIFE is really simple,” said Confucius, “but we insist on making it complicated.” The Economist agrees. Unfortunately, Confucius could not have guessed what lay ahead. The rate at which mankind makes life complicated seems ever to accelerate. This is a bad thing. So this newspaper wants be the first to lay down some new rules. Henceforth, genius will be measured not by how fancy, big or powerful somebody makes something, but by how simple.

Alas, that was easier said than done.

But ever since then, I have been obsessed with simplicity, as you may have noticed if you have been reading The Hannibal Blog (for instance here and here).

This means that I palpitate with excitement whenever I encounter other people who share my obsession. Well, Alan Siegel, a brand consultant, appears to share it. Watch (less than 5 minutes!):

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20 thoughts on “The search for simplicity, continued

  1. Looks like a fitting quote that I first saw in this “A Plain English Handbook” in 1998 by the investor Warren Buffett,

    “[…] drive to encourage “plain English” in disclosure documents, are good news for me. For more than forty years, I’ve studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said.”

    Click to access handbook.pdf

    P.S. While Buffett is a very wise investor, I think there are times that he also writes less clear than he could have (and may be should have).

    • Buffett is usually great at clear and simple language. But you’ve clearly studied him more than I have. Any particular fuzziness in his language that you’re thinking about?

  2. Thank you Mr. Siegel! But not all advertising/brand people would share your desire for simplicity. When the former CEO of NZ Telecom was asked to explain the inscrutability of mobile phone billing plans she said, “Confusion is our marketing strategy.”

    • But of course. Complexity is sometimes accidental (stupid, sloppy people in committees…) but often intentional, whenever you want to obfuscate something.

      More about this in another post I am planning.

  3. Pardon another pointless polemical excess, but! – If Confucius (who by the way advised not entering conversation with someone below the ‘half way point’ in any given sphere of knowledge.) was so bright(so potently efficacious and so forth, blah blah) why didn’t his easily dispersible rules win out and forever establish a rule of wisdom throughout all the domains of human life and why are the words written on Orwell’s Animal Farm barn so simple yet ‘somehow’ totally false? Isn’t it preferable that we kept our effective thinking muscles in shape – rather then sparing all effort, relying on a city of moving sidewalks (like children living in a world created by their ancestors which they no longer understand as in science fiction.)? – To make all things easier or to make all minds stronger (amounts to the same thing.) – !? i.e. what are all these funny lines – writing / script the privileged jargon / nonsense of the ancient world.

    True it’s a good sign that someone understands a sophisticated bit of jargon when they can readily translate it for the non-specialist (should this be so in physics and pure maths too? Or only in econ ha ha:) – but econ is more mathy too now, no?), but really do we want the instructions for building jet planes and echo-friendly sea based wind power distribution hubs to be idiot-simple? and so forth. .. :O

    I too am for making things accessible through the intermediary of a competent ‘translator’ , but why should experts dealing with tricky distinctions not, between themselves, stick to their shorthand?

    • Alan Siegel used a very good example in the IRS letter. His focus was on the paper issued by government (although there are commercial organizations which are equally guilty) to the general public (not experts). Technical documentation for building or maintaining complex machines such as planes and power stations should remain complex, so long as the experts can understand them. Documents for the general public (such as an IRS letter or a credit agreement) should be as short as possible and in easy to understand language.

      I worked for a large bureacratic organization and I know how such documents get amended over time (by committees) to become very long and poorly structured. It is always easier to add a new clause or sub-clause than re-write the whole document. This is the path of least resistance for a committee, which also includes experts that do not see the problem! It takes a lot more effort to step back and re-write the document, without losing any essential information. Nevertheless, all bureacratic organizations (government or commercial) should spend more time on this, as Alan Siegel demonstrated so well in the TED video.

      By the way, if you think this is a problem in English speaking countries, you should see the size of the documents (in German) that I get with every insurance contract (car, house, life etc.) in Austria.

    • Zog Kadare, I think that John makes a very good point:

      You have to distinguish who is communicating with which audience.

      If experts are talking to experts, of course they will do so at an appropriate level. Certain things can be shortened into abbreviations and so forth. But even then, they should strive to be “simple at their own level”, ie to make sure that they say the most with the least waste.

      When anybody talks to the general public, the benchmark of appropriateness changes.

      And I would add that this has nothing to do with dumbing down. It takes extra-rigorous mental acuity to simplify, since you must first figure out the order and sequence of your thoughts.

      If you make things as simple as possible, only then can you climb towards understanding the complexities of the world.

  4. A long, meandering, circuitous piece of writing is the easy option. I know, I have produced enough of it.

    It’s much harder to get a thorough grip of the ideas before you start. Then, something miraculous happens. You can write as though in ordinary conversation. The language comes to life and conveys meaning.

    Sometimes, of course, there are ideas which are not ordinary and you have to use special words, or you may seek precision where usual expressions are vague. That, however, is fairly rare and easily dealt with.

  5. Dear Andreas,

    Thank-you for reminding me (again) about simplicity and its calming effect on my being.

    We planted one olive tree last weekend (instead of 40).

    Was that a good decision?

  6. I accidentally picked up an apropos book (More so from the bad guys point of view.)-

    In the category of the Heroes of Simplicity: Elie Wiesel gives us (or in any case proffers up) an ’emblematic figure in his “Rashi”, the great Talmud scholar whose explanatory comments remain, after a neat thousand years, unsurpassed for ease of hatching out occluded meaning for the understanding of novices and exegetes alike.

    A sample from the book of Genesis:

    “And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him.”
    Rashi comments: “a helpmate opposite him”: If he is worthy, she will be a helpmate. If he is not worthy, she will be against him, to fight him.

    “And I would add that this has nothing to do with dumbing down. It takes extra-rigorous mental acuity to simplify, since you must first figure out the order and sequence of your thoughts.” – ‘andreaskluth’

    – For the guy doing the simplifying effective thinking is required (on this I agree), but for the listener it is just that same opportunity to exercise the mind that is denied by the very genius of the first guy. Thus, sinewy fit exegete = flabby listener folk?

    “If you make things as simple as possible, only then can you climb towards understanding the complexities of the world.” – True, but why burn the paradoxes of this world with the bathe water whilst evacuating the tub for simplicity? Why kill higher order discourse in the name of advocating for the intelligent new comer?

    But these comments are perhaps mostly superfluous a la the rule of ‘Richard Manchester”s folly 😛

    “Communication is a successful failure” – as always…

    • OK, Zog Kadare: Are you pleading with me to test your hypothesis by making the Hannibal Blog obtuse and complex in order to exercise your mind and keep it lean and mean?

      How many convoluted posts would you like? 😉

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