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:
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: