How to Make Things Look Simple

Here’s a story I’ve told a couple of times now:

One of the best live shows that I saw during my university days was Beat Happening and Girl Trouble. All of us were a long way from home in Washington when I saw them in New Jersey. While Beat Happening was playing what I thought was a pretty mesmerising show, my friend Tom leaned over to me and said ‘we could do that.’ I looked at him for a long time, then said ‘but we don’t, do we?’

Part of what was going on there was that Beat Happening made things look incredibly simple. As the success of Apple shows, simple is good. People like simple. But the Apple example also shows that you have to work awfully hard to make something complex seem simple. You need to work your way through simplistic and complex before you get to simple.

How can you do this?

The secret to making things look simple is to build a deep understanding of the system.

There was another example of this in the fantastic exhibition of drawings by Matisse that just opened at the Gallery of Modern Art here in Brisbane (and if you’ll be in Brisbane between now and March, I strongly recommend seeing it).

Here is a picture that I took at the exhibition (just before the guard yelled at me for taking pictures):

To paint one of his masterpieces, he did 3000 sketches first, over a nine year period. 3000!

So one way to make things look simple is to do them a lot, for a long time.

At the end of his career, Matisse started a series of work that he called themes and variations. These consisted of series of line drawings of the same subject. He did these by first making the theme drawing. He did both models and still lifes, and in each case he spent many hours on this theme drawing over a number of days. The point of this was to gain a deep understanding of the subject, and to figure out what elements were the most important. Here is one he made for a series of variations of his granddaughter – at this point it doesn’t look much like art:

The thing that he was trying to do was to capture the fleeting expressions that people have, which he believed revealed their personalities. This is very hard to do with a painting. So after sinking all of that time into building the theme drawing, he would very quickly do line drawings like this:

Simple, right?

But he could only do things that looked this simple after investing many hours into learning the subjects. And he only developed this method after 50 years as an artist. The key to this simplicity is the deep understanding that he built over all those years and all those iterations.

One of the keys to innovating is to make something novel that seems obvious once you show it to people. It is a creative enterprise. Making it seem obvious often means making it simple.

The challenge here is that simple is pretty hard. It takes time, it takes learning, and it takes skill. But if you get it right, the rewards can be great.

Here is a great quote from Ira Glass of NPR that I ran across yesterday which sums it up:

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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18 thoughts on “How to Make Things Look Simple

  1. Great post!

    I am reminded of a favorite quote by Blaise Pascal: “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.”

    Speaking of quotes, that quote from Ira Glass is fabulous! I’m printing a copy right now so I can post it on my office door (perhaps I’ll print a second copy, one for each side).

    In digging around a bit, it appears the quote is from an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

    One of my favorite all-time interviews in any media was Ira Glass being interviewed by “Being Wrong” author Kathryn Schulz, On Air and On Error: This American Life’s Ira Glass on Being Wrong … which might be considered the long version of the quote captured more succinctly in the poster you’ve shared here.

    And just to bring it full circle, while I agree that getting it right requires learning and skill, I believe that learning and skill often arise primarily through making lots of mistakes (i.e., being wrong alot … but with an open mind).

  2. Great post, TIm. Simplicity is beautiful because it can capture the heart and mind in an instant. The longer it takes to understand, the less likely they will be captured.

    Keeping things simple also means avoiding “feature creep”. This is the temptation to add more things which usually come from a senior manager asking “can we add….” to a junior manager who feels unable to disagree. It’s what makes consumer electronics marketing impenetrable to anybody but engineers. It’s the love of acronyms like HDMI etc. It’s the belief that more must be better.

    It’s also about the simplicity of communication. I like the consumer marketing guideline (not always followed) of the “single-minded message”. Check out this great example –

  3. I so prefer the Ira Glass perspective to Mr. Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule. Being successful – on our own terms – is so much more than grinding out 10,000 hours of practice. It’s about overcoming the daily reminders of how disappointed we are with our results, pressing on regardless because we believe in what we’re trying to do and know we’ll get there.

    Thanks for sharing, Tim.

  4. Hi Tim,
    I love the story of Giotto winning a papal commission for St Peters by perfectly scribing a large cirle on a sheet of paper with a paint brush dipped in red ink. Skills learnt from a lifetime of diligent practice being conveyed in a simple, yet precise single movement.
    Another fantastic post Tim, much thanks Rohan.

  5. @Joe – thanks for tracking down the original quote. My first thought on waking this morning was “I need to track down the source”.

    The interview with Kathryn Schulz is fantastic – thanks also for that. Her book is one of my favourites this year.

    And I definitely agree with your final point about learning through mistakes. It’s critically important.

  6. @Kevin – That’s a great example! Thanks.

    I definitely agree about feature creep. In the post I pretty much assumed that simplicity is good, but it is probably worthwhile to more explicitly build a case a for that idea.

  7. @Brian – I think the two ideas probably work in tandem, but I am with you in preferring the Glass perspective. Although really, the main point is to just get in there and start doing stuff. True in both cases.

  8. @Rohan – I’ve run across that story several times over the past week, and it is a great one. A very good example to illustrate the point – thanks!

  9. this is the reason behind the sufi saying, “know that by which all else is known” … understanding the basic principles of the knower and the knowing, anything can be known more deeply.

  10. Update: I was wrong about a few things (perhaps appropriately so, given my earlier comment referencing Kathryn Schulz, author of “Being Wrong”).

    Based on additional searching, I now believe the Ira Glass quote poster was created by Sawyer Hollenshead.

    Also, it turns out the Ira Glass video from which the quote poster was derived was posted by Current TV, probably in the context of promoting This American Life television reruns; the text of the quote was posted on a blog maintained by a producer of Fresh Air, but it does not appear that Ira Glass has been interviewed by Terry Gross anytime recently.

    Finally, now that I’m finally done teaching – and grading – for the quarter, I took some time to capitalize on the inspiration derived from the poster (and other sources) to weave together some thoughts on the gaps, crap and gumption traps in creative work.

    Thanks for your role in providing some of that inspiration!

  11. Thanks for the update Joe. That’s an excellent post – I’ll comment over on the site later.

    Glad I could help trigger some thoughts!

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