Essays & Articles


Complexity is Good, Simplicity Overrated (Misc Magazine)

Misc Magazine asked if I would contribute an essay on “simplicity.” “No,” I responded, “but I’ll write on complexity. So here it is. (Readers of my book “Living with Complexity” will find this familiar.)

Pity complexity. Badly misunderstood, railed against, insulted, decried. All for an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Want to know what is even worse? Simplicity. How did complexity become the evil villain, simplicity a hero? Simplicity is an emperor without clothes.

Complexity is good. The world is complex and our tools must work in that world, so they must match it. People – and this includes you, dear reader, need complex tools, products, and services. You don’t want simplicity. How do I know? Because when offered a choice between something really simple and something that actually accomplishes things you want done, even though more complex, you will chose complexity.

Confusion: This is the enemy. We do not wish to be confused, befuddled, and frustrated by our tools. The argument against complexity is due to the common misunderstanding that complexity leads to confusion. No, it doesn’t have to.  This is the role of good design: to make complex things simple to understand, easy to use, and delightful.

When we talk about simplicity, we need to ask how “simple” is being judged: from what point of view. Elegant, special-purpose tools are always simpler than complex, multi-functional ones. A correspondent once challenged me:

Tools. Show me a silversmiths planishing hammer with added complexity and I’ll show you an unsold tool. Same for many hand tools.

The point is a good one. Why is it that the tools of the crafts worker always seem simple and elegant? Consider woodworking, silversmithing, blacksmithing, gardening or sports such as camping, hiking, and mountain climbing. Simple, straightforward tools. Why must our electronic tools be so complicated?

But the comparison is misleading. One cannot compare the elegance of the silversmith’s planishing hammer (a specialized hammer made for toughening and smoothing a metal surface) with, for example, the complexity of the choices confronting a user of the photographic editing tool, Photoshop.

The correct comparison is with the complete toolset of the silversmith, where each of the “simple,” specialized tools is akin to a single menu choice in Photoshop.

With Photoshop, the hard part is knowing which menu item to chose. I don’t know anything about silversmithing, so when I see the array of tools in the silversmith’s workshop, I am completely overwhelmed. One person’s simplicity is another person’s complexity. .

The simplistic approach would be to ask the silversmith to use a single hammer for everything. In many cases, life is simpler by having a few complex, multi-purpose tools rather than a lot of elegant, special purpose ones.  If I am traveling, I do prefer a Swiss army knife. It makes my life simpler, even if the knife is complex (I never get the correct tool at first try), and even if each tool is deficient. I used to use it a lot when traveling (prior to airport security restrictions), but I would never use it at home.

Real complexity does not lie in the tools, but in the task. Skilled workers have an array of tools, each carefully matched to a particular task requirement. It can take years to learn which tool goes with which task, and years to master the tools. The tool set is complicated because the task is complicated. Looking at the visual simplicity of the tool is misleading.

The mark of the great designer is the ability to provide what people need without excessive complexity, without feature bloat. Make things understandable and they are perceived as being simple. It is the job of the designer to manage complexity with skill and grace, to ensure that complex things are understandable, usable, and enjoyable.

The mark of the great designer is the ability to provide the complexity that people need in a manner that is understandable and elegant. Simplicity should never be the goal. Complex things will require complexity. It is the job of the designer to manage that complexity with skill and grace.

Don Norman studies, teaches, and practices good design. He is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, an IDEO fellow, former VP at Apple and professor. He is the author of Design of Everyday Things and, most recently, Living with Complexity, from which parts of this essay have been taken. He lives in Silicon Valley at