The New Minimalism Part II: Complexity for its Own Sake
In Part I of this series we touched on the origins of minimalism in the mid-twentieth century. First as it appeared in the visual arts and music, and then how it spread into industrial design, and in particular the work of Mies van der Rohe and Dieter Rams. The “less is more” ethos of minimalism is as much about what should be left out as what should be included. This is an important aspect, and one that runs contrary to the “form follows function” edict that dominated (and still does) most popular design.
The Remote You Can’t Control
Take as an example the remote control we use to turn our television off and on. This device has seen the addition of a whole host of features, to adjust every aspect of the picture and sound as well as managing other input devices such as the cable box, Blu-ray player, etc. The more things the TV could do, the more buttons were added to the remote. The sad part is that the remote, with all its buttons, was generally unable to work as a “universal” device and so the viewer was forced to use multiple remotes.
Suddenly, something which had been very simple to use had become complicated – the remote control reflected complexity. While there are universal remotes available on the market today, they require a certain amount of programing to work effectively and can be decidedly “user unfriendly.” This is a design problem that the largest companies in the world are still attempting to solve.
A Word about MS Word
This kind of over complication can be found throughout our daily lives. Cell phones, computer software, high tech automobiles provide additional, often powerful, features and functionality, but often at a price and with a steep learning curve. Take Microsoft Word for instance. Still the most popular word processing software program available, MS Word is notorious for piling on features designed to empower the user only to have them ignored and left unused. The cycle of annual updates made what was originally a relatively intuitive approach to word processing into something that required a 500 page manual to navigate.
Frustrated users of Word began to demand the ability to hide unwanted features. In an effort to improve usability, Microsoft attempted to rethink the interface adding “help” and “ribbons.” The result was greater frustration driving customers to seek simpler solutions from Google and Apple among others. The addition of features and function in software resulting from the annual need to re-sell product meant the user needed to relearn the program every year or maintain an older version of the software. Not only did the software need to be upgraded. The aggressive update cycle sometimes meant that an entire system upgrade including new hardware was necessary to support the “new and improved” product.
Why there is an App for That
This complexity for complexity’s sake could explain the public’s quick embrace of “apps” on their mobile devices. These small “applications” tend to be single purpose programs designed to do one thing well: forecast the weather, manage reminders, store passwords.
These apps are updated “in the background” and the changes are incremental in nature requiring little or no relearning on the part of the user. Of course this isn’t always the case. Some apps that started simply have taken on more complexity over time such as Evernote, while others are aimed specifically at power users.
As things become more complicated, people almost naturally turn away. The truth is that keeping something simple isn’t easy.