On Simple

On October 23 2001, Steve Jobs delivered the sweetest line in the history of product marketing: 1000 songs in your pocket. And he carefully tucked the iPod in his pocket. One of the most innovative products of the 21st century had one of the simplest taglines. The iPod in and of itself was not so simple. It was clunky, had an ugly wheel in the center and was confusingly white. But, compared to the mp3 payers that existed then, it was a remarkable product. Over the last decade, the iPod has undergone multiple reiterations – more that any of Apple’s other products.

Simplicity of the iPod: See how simple the iPod gets over time. Yet, it’s also becoming incrementally better. Innovative. (And colorful! )

Eight years after the iPod was launched, one of the most anticipated launches happened here in India – The Tata Nano. The tagline: “World’s cheapest car.” I hope Steve didn’t hear that.

Now, is the Nano simple?

It is small, it was cheap and it’s….cute. Passes the simplicity test. And that’s where our definition of simplicity becomes very wrong. We think small, plain or cheap is simple. Because Dad would always say let’s buy something simple. What he meant was let’s buy something cheap. Simple TV always meant heavier, cheaper and smaller. Being simple meant wearing plain clothes that really make you look like a dork.

Here was my attempt at making a PowerPoint presentation simple:

1. Take the content from the last 25 slides and add it to the first 25 . (Reduce font-size! )

2. Combine two graphs into one to further reduce it down to 21 slides.

3. Ta-daaa! Reduced the presentation from 50 slides to 20 slides (Removed the thank you slide).

Simple stuff! And everyone bought it.

What I really did was make something complex SEEM less complex by making it more complex to understand. Like those Nokia phones that Dad thought were simple, but actually took him 10 mins to get a spelling right. The presentation did not eliminate any complexity, Nor did it become any better. It was still filled with jargon and now uglier graphs. But, for some reason everyone thought it was good. Because we think fewer, plain is simple. That 20 slides is good. That it is what simple means.

Simple is not innovative or cheap or minimalistic. Simple is deeper than that. Reducing font size, combining graphs and manufacturing the worlds cheapest car could pass of as innovative. Because, well, you did something no body else did, yet. But simplicity is more complex. Innovation is only the first step – many of which the iPod took. You need to go deep to make anything simple. And in the process you add more complexity. The deeper you go, the more complex it becomes and more you understand your product (or presentation). And then you unravel from this infinite depth of complexity and in the process, you eliminate the clutter and bring order to the complexity. Your aim is not to eliminate clutter, but bring purpose to your product. And when everything about it seems purposeful and better than when you started, you have started to simplify.

“The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That’s not simple.” – Sir Jony Ive.

There’s been a bad rap about the amount of complexity we need to deal with everyday – at workplaces and beyond. So, there’s this fascination for simplicity and cheesy acronyms like kiss (keep it simple stupid/silly/screwball). But without an understanding that getting to simple can happen only through a lot of complexity, you can never really, you know, KISS.

Simplicity can be arrived at only by creating something complex, identifying the essential and nonessential, giving every part a purpose, and stripping down all the non-essentials elegantly. Like solving a math problem. It could be a simple problem but you get scored every step along the way! Simplicity is complex. More like a work of an artist than that of a two year with paper.

They iPod started with not having a switch and then not having a screen and then not even having buttons. And they couldn’t have got there without at some point it all becoming mind-numbingly complex. No buttons? Really, Steve? And in the process they also innovated. But simplicity is what stood out. Simple yet not small, cheap or plain.

To leave you on a philosophical note, like the simple pleasures of life, it takes effort, focus, hard work, and a lot of complexity to understand what simple really means. And in Steve’s words, once you understand that, you can move mountains. 

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