“I want to go for something simple.”
I heard these words often from design students when I was lecturing at the North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Simplicity is associated with sophistication and, in the case of indolent undergraduates, seems like a convenient shortcut to a satisfactory design solution. Not understanding the problem you are solving and trying to avoid the work of doing so, however, inevitably produces a mediocre result. It leads to simplistic thinking and superficial creative work.
Years ago I came across the now famous quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes in M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled and Beyond: “For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life." This idea has shaped my approach to design, the way I interact with clients and life in general. We are complicated beings and we are more irrational than we’d like to admit. To get to the other side of complexity takes work. We do not have a natural, intuitive grasp of the heart of a matter (unless we are very wise or very lucky). This work entails thinking about the issue, dissecting it, discussing it, writing about it, struggling with it and coming to terms with paradox (that other human conundrum).
Logo design has always been the poster child of simplicity in creative work, and for good reason. Creating a good logo requires doing the work to get from this side of complexity to the other side, where a simple, elegant solution lies. To distill the essence of a product or business to a brand mark one has to understand its uniqueness, its inner workings and its contradictions. There are no shortcuts here—running around the woods and claiming to have been through it will show. Simplistic and simple are two very different breeds.
It has to be said that simplicity on the other side of complexity does not necessarily mean simple in style. Some of the best logos are intricate and complex, like the Unilever and Starbucks brands. The difference here is that the end result is the product of a creative process that engaged with complexity, instead of avoiding it. In the end, the Unilever brand mark embodies the elaborate offering of the company (food and beverages, cleaning agents, beauty products, personal care products, etc.), but presents it in a unified, stylised U-shape that beautifully illustrates its complex nature. The Starbucks logo could have been a cup or a bean with a star on it, but that would have been simplistic, ignoring the Moby-Dick inspired name and mythological heritage which it inspired.
A good design solution is evident. While we might not readily find an answer on this side, we recognise with ease when someone has ventured through the woods and came out the other side. We see that it works. We nod knowingly and praise its elegance. We understand intuitively that no shortcuts were taken and we are inspired to get to work.
Entering the woods of complexity is a daunting task, but it’s the only way to simplicity on the other side.