The Complexity of Simplicity

Casting my mind back a few decades, as a rookie designer my portfolio was full of overly complex design solutions. I hoped to impress by showing off the various tricks and techniques I had learned thus far; fancy fonts, drop shadows here, grungy textures there and an array of colours that would make an impressive coat for any would-be Joseph. Unfortunately as any follower of Masterchef will agree – a large assortment of ingredients, flavours and cheffy techniques all on the one plate doesn’t necessarily make a good dish.

A simple dish served well

As I evolved in the industry my work became less fussy and pretentious. The visual design plates I was starting to serve up were becoming more like the sought after Masterchef approach. Kicking off with a strong idea of what I wanted achieve – call it a concept or a theme, a small selection of good ingredients with the big flavours supported by the additional complimentary tastes and textures to add interest and then presented in a fresh attention grabbing way. Simples! However striving for this visual clarity is not simply a matter of stripping away; the fewer the elements the more emphasis is given to the elements that remain, so each one must be challenged in it’s role. There’s a need to determine how the piece will be viewed and utilise only what is essential and present these elements with a clear hierarchy of importance that lead the eye through the message.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away



Simplicity is quite simply the opposite of complexity and this design strategy can often help cut through the visual clutter that bombards us from all sides. It should never be dull however, the extreme approach is minimalism. In the foodie world this is often very expensive, pretentious, clever yes, but ultimately unsatisfying. Same goes for design work just based around a flashy in vogue technique – think Modernist Molecular Gastronomy (spare me please!); complex and technically excellent but the appetite is still left wanting. The advice here is drop the show off stuff and don’t substitute Photoshop trickery for a strong idea.

Over complication and a desire to impress can also mess with your head. In a recent blog, the restaurant critic, Jay Rayner, mercilessly attacked the way many modern restaurants over complicate things in a bid to appear clever: non plate serving items – think buckets, slates and flowerpots! Tiny print that’s impossible to read without a torch and magnifying glass. He reserved his prime rant though for the most serious offence of using completely indecipherable markings on toilet doors. Time is of the essence, you are presented with a choice – one door is marked with a circle and crossed line pointing down; the other, a circle with an arrow pointing off to the right. Choose now! Whoops… It really shouldn’t be so clever that we forced as a user to try and work out the ingenious code before finally taking a big breath and a bigger risk and pushing the door open! The same goes for printed communication – being overly complicated or a designer smart alec can lead to frustration and a real potential for misinterpretation. We don’t need to dumb it down but we can’t be so creatively clever that our design demands careful analysis backed up by research or just plain guesswork to get the message out!

On that note I’ll leave you with a KISS and well known phrase ’Keep It Simple Stupid’ (no offence intended!)