In his book Lightningbolt, native American writer Hyemeyohsts Storm explains the ancient concept of zero, a teaching handed down to him by his Mayan guide, Estcheemah. In this view zero doesn’t symbolise nothing; rather it represents The Everything, the portal through which all things emerge, a kind of transit station through which reality moves from intangible to tangible.

The nothing that means everything

All it takes to sum up the immeasurable complexity of things is a simple circle, a zero: something we normally deem to mean “nothing.”

The circle often pops up in the history of mystical symbology: the dharma wheel, bringing spiritual transformation, time as a snake swallowing its own tale, the wedding ring as a symbol of eternity, etc. The empty circle is a potent and expressive symbol of infinite complexity.

Zero doesn’t symbolise nothing; rather it represents The Everything, the portal through which all things emerge.

Symbols don’t exist to hide or erase complexity. Rather they indicate the existence of the complex in a form the human mind can integrate. The journey from complex to simple is surely the most beautiful path for designers, artists, and writers. Simplicity is, as we’ll try to show, an expression of love.

Resisting the bling of complexity

Despite the Gestalt psychologists’ assertion that the eye is naturally drawn to simple imagery, consumers often assume that more complexity is better. We’ll buy shoes with flashing lights even if we never wear them out at night. We’ll buy jeans with beads and sequins even if this detracts from the classic lines of the jeans. Like children we’re drawn to devices that can do things we can do better ourselves. Creative people are especially attracted to the appearance of complexity. If we’re not careful, we ascribe to complexity more value than it deserves.

Consider the following common scenario.

“Don’t you think the price is a little steep?”

“But look at all it can do! It can pick a restaurant for you. It can hold thousands of songs! And find you a job! It can create a ‘To Do list’ and even help you meditate!”

“Do I really need a device for any of those things? And if I did, can this device do them better than I can do them on my own? And if it does, will I need to spend a lot of time figuring out how to use it?”

If we’re not careful, we ascribe to complexity more value than it deserves.

Smoke gets in your eyes

The shiny bells and whistles of technology aren’t the only things that can blind us to an object’s true value. We find the same problem in communication, where we too often assume that if we can’t understand it, it must be true. The “argument from ignorance” says that if a statement hasn’t yet been proven false, it must be true. This is absurd (if you want to see some hilarious examples, look here), but we often encounter this principle in communication, in a slightly altered form: I’m going to accept this as true because it’s so complicated that I have neither the time nor the mental energy to prove it false.

Many communicators deliberately complicate their messages, having a vested interest in hiding the truth and knowing we won’t have time to figure out what they’re really saying.

Realising this, many communicators deliberately complicate their messages, having a vested interest in hiding the truth and knowing we won’t have time to figure out what they’re really saying. Look at your own experience: Have you ever asked someone a sensitive question only to get an answer that seemed like smoke was being blown in your eyes? We see politicians doing this all the time at news conferences, and not even the most persistent journalists can squeeze a straight answer out of them.

As W.C.Fields was supposed to have said (but didn’t really), If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

Professions are plagued with wordiness and insider lingo designed to impress rather than inform. Consider this educational memo, reprinted in The New Yorker:

Operationally, teaching effectiveness is measured by assessing the levels of agreement between the perceptions of instructors and students on the rated ability of specific instructional behavior attributes which were employed during course instruction. Due to the fact that instructors come from diverse backgrounds and occupy different positions within a given university, both individual and organizational based factors may contribute to the variance in levels of agreement between perceptions. [From UW Teaching Forum, published by the University of Wisconsin System Undergraduate Teaching Improvement Council]

Let’s hope the message, whatever it was, wasn’t urgent.

Someone in the chain of command should have been honest enough to admit they didn’t understand this memo. They should have sent it back for a rewrite even if that meant their intelligence would be put in question. Sometimes the emperor is wearing no clothes, and it must be said.

Then there’s the web. The overcomplexity that plagues website design prompted the hilarious satire– and call to simplicity–we find here. The more we examine a thing and the more rigorously we stick to our three questions, the less value we find in the busy visual hooplah of most websites.

There are even literary writers who have such contempt for their readers that they bury simple thoughts under so much imagery and prattle that reading them is like deciphering ancient Sanskrit only to find that the text is just an ancient grocery list. Seasoned readers will toss the book aside, as they should. You don’t have time to write clearly? I don’t have time to read you.

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Just go back to your Elements of Style by Strunk and White: The best writers don’t show off or deliberately mystify; they write simply, the goal being to convey information, not to hide it. Simple writing is an effort of love, manifesting a desire to express what matters in a way that can be easily understood and taken to heart.

Complexity and politics

Leaders who appear simple and direct often use simplicity not to clarify the complexity but to disguise it.

As we’ve already hinted, poor writing and speaking sometimes serve to hide truth and sabotage its dissemination. Baffle the citizenry and you remove their power to respond appropriately to whatever it is you’re plotting. The ability to create reams of indecipherable fine print is a skill corporate and government lawyers have had centuries to hone, allowing power to subvert justice and get away with it.

Sometimes the method is to use the right combination of complexity and simplicity. Groups often come to power by using the following brilliant but sleazy series of tactics:

1). Develop a program the majority will never accept if stated clearly.

2). Explain this program in terms so complicated that no one gets it.

3). Back leaders who appear simple and direct in order to win the people’s trust and deflect attention from the actual program. Thus simplicity is used not to clarify the complexity but to disguise it.

We’ve met the enemy and he is us.

The political left shouldn’t feel too smug. Many of us who’ve worked in social change organisations have had the experience of being unbearably frustrated when the answers we get do everything but address our questions. Our attempts to create real-life solutions to pressing social problems are hampered by responses that are no more than ideological rhetoric.

Our goal shouldn’t be to eliminate complexity, which is so often essential, but rather to simplify the means by which we communicate this complexity

This simply will not do, not just because we have to win, but because we can’t be resorting to the same underhanded tactics as the enemy.

Let’s say for example that we’re preparing a campaign to protect public health coverage and we need the public to support it. The readers who receive the literature and hear the speeches will likely be asking themselves the same questions we posed of the device lauded earlier:

1). Do I need what this thing offers?

2). Will this thing actually meet my needs?

3). Will the time it takes to understand this thing be time well spent?

If we’re wise we’ll design our literature and elevator speeches to simply and honestly respond to real needs and concerns. The public needs to know why public health care matters to them. They need to know what our campaign proposes, and they need to know our likelihood of succeeding. They also need to know whether access to public health care will be complicated by long waiting times and reams of red tape. Anything we want to say that doesn’t directly respond to these questions can wait.

But how can we make this happen? How, metaphorically speaking, can we reduce an infinite complex of movements to the seemingly effortless beauty of an arabesque?

Let’s go back to “zero” for a moment.

The how

In The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life by John Maeda we learn that simplifying, i.e. reducing a thing to its essentials, streamlines both communication and design, rendering them more effective.

The task is not to replace complexity with simplicity but rather to maintain the two in the most effective symbiosis. Our goal shouldn’t be to eliminate complexity, which is so often essential, but rather to simplify the means by which we communicate this complexity. Complexity should be underneath, simplicity on top, like an anthill.

Maeda suggests we organise our information, remove whatever is unnecessary, superfluous, or obvious, and translate the remaining information into a form that can be easily understood (“zero” for example). This form needs to be repeated often enough that once people accept it they can internalise it. Most successful marketing campaigns use this principle, and so can we.

All you need is love

Maeda brings up another factor which sounds like it might be adding complexity but is actually a way of adding meaning: As far as emotion is concerned, a little is good, and more’s better.

Warmth, feeling, responsiveness, beauty, and caring are not among the elements that should be removed in your efforts to simplify, because these things are always of the essence. Valuing feelings is how we cut to the chase.

Let’s look at it another way. Would you rather get a long academic treatise explaining the nature of love or simply a big hug and a sincere, “I love you?”

Here’s one small example. When a new building is being constructed all kinds of time and effort are put into myriad details. But unless the law stipulates, builders may forget to create a simple slope allowing wheelchairs to enter. We don’t realise what kind of message this sends until we’re in a wheelchair or out walking with a friend who’s in one, but a building with no wheelchair access might as well have a sign outside proclaiming “Wheelchairs Forbidden.”

Compassion means responding to real needs first, and this is the basis of simplicity.

Let’s look at it another way. Would you rather get a long academic treatise explaining the nature of love or simply a big hug and a sincere, “I love you?”

Allowing ourselves to feel as well as think aids the kind of design, communication, and organising that can build a better world.

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