Why "Keep It Simple" Is BS

Last updated: Dec 14, 2012

You read it correctly. I am here to say that “keep it simple” is bullshit. It is too often misused. The problem lies in the fact that people refer to simplicity in the matter of quantity. Mostly quantity of information, in terms of visual presentation and sometimes aural expression.

When people ask for simplicity, they are in fact asking to reduce the quantity of information. What’s amiss here is the purpose that explains why we should do so, how, and what. Two major problems will arise, if you blindly pursue simplicity for the sake of it.

  1. Contents can get bland, in dearth of details.
  2. Essential contents might die, when the irrelevant survive.

Regarding this matter, I want to let Edward Tufte, the American statistician and author of “Envisioning Information”, explain on my behalf. In the aforementioned book, he is almost disparaging of the common misconception of simplicity.

Doesn’t data have to be “boiled down” and “simplified”? These common questions miss the point, for the quantity of detail is an issue completely separate from the difficulty of reading.

And he also went on to say,

Clutter and confusion are failures of design, not attributes of information. Often the less complex and less subtle the line, the more ambiguous and less interesting is the reading.

Accepting simplicity as an end per se, and equating simplicity with less of whatever quantity, is an obtuse pursuits and a surrender to lethargy. You don’t want to think too much what really matters and what not, so you just take up the sword and swing it to your heart’s content. While showing off your mastery of swordsmanship, you might have already killed your friends along with some enemies.

Therefore, simplicity cannot be an end in and of itself. It should be a corollary in the pursuit of the essential. I can understand why the perception of simplicity as an end is so prevalent. It’s a heuristic that quite often fits reality. We usually have too much on the plate and need to cut unnecessary parts, leaving us with “less” of what we had before. If you’re a guy longing for excellence, then whatever works _on average _won’t do you any good.

What must happen, however, is to capture the core. In other words, we need to “keep things focused” at the heart of a problem, instead of blindly cutting things by default, overwhelmed by the sheer quantity.

So what’s the moral? Forget the quantity. Focus on the essential and organization of it. Now when someone says “let’s keep things simple”, ask him or her why. And if the guy says “Well, it looks complex.”, you should be able to say “Hey, that’s a bullshit. Tell me why we have to do it.” A sheer quantity isn’t a good guide. Be loyal to essentials.

As a side note, this simplicity-for-simplicity type of feedback as above is something everyone can say and is hardly of any real nutrition. Also it would be too simple a thought, if you took this to mean that we shouldn’t prune things off at all. Feel free to contradict me, if you think this argument is simplistic.

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