From landscape architecture to Google via Dieter Rams, Hoss Gifford reflects on why achieving simplicity in design is often easier said than done, and much more expensive than it appears
In 1893, the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, was stressed out. One might have thought that the 33 years that had passed since Freddy had won the competition to design New York’s Central Park would see him chilled about his firm’s work.
After all, it was the world’s first full-time landscape architecture firm. He’d persuaded Congress to set up their first national park at Yosemite, created the first coordinated system of public parks, and even built the first public wading pool in America.
The source of Fred’s stress was the ludicrously tight deadline for his latest job, the grounds for The Chicago World’s Fair. Fred favoured natural landscapes that took years to create, but the fair was due to open in a matter of months. Too ill to leave New York, he wrote a letter to his assistant in Chicago advising him to under-decorate rather than over-decorate. “Let us be thought over-much plain and simple, even bare, rather than gaudy, flashy, cheap and meretricious. Let us manifest the taste of gentlemen,” he said.
The Fredster wins not just for his wonderful use of the word ‘meretricious’ (it’s got something to do with whores) but also for his understanding that when time is tight and the pressure is high, we naturally tend towards complexity and vulgarity. It’s a dichotomy that to this day still strains client-designer relations. Simplicity is difficult to achieve. And by difficult, I mean expensive.
Elegantly simple design belies the effort required for its creation. One major reason for this is the need for a designer to understand a thing at a deep enough level to grasp its essence, in order to know what to remove. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery famously said: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Another reason for simplicity’s expensiveness is that simplicity in one facet of an operation often leads to complexity in another. Google Instant’s results simplify how we search the web by saving us time – John Maeda’s third rule of simplicity – but the feature needed 15 new technologies for it to work.
Add to this the increases in design complexity that responsive web design brings, and you start to see why I have Dieter Rams’ 10th principle of good design writ large on the wall at OneMethod: ‘Good design is as little design as possible.’ Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.
It’s a principle that Freddo would have approved of, even if senility forced him to stop working within a couple of years of the ‘taste of gentlemen’ letter. I hope you can keep things simple and keep your clients – without losing your marbles.