Why designers should seek chaos and complexity first


verybody seem to agree on the fact that the World is complex and is getting even more complex everyday. I wouldn't discuss that, it's probably true. It seems that everyone also agrees on the fact that Simple is better than Complex and that we need simplicity in the products (material or immaterial) and services we use everyday. Probably also true. Now, when the subject touches to Design, everyone seems to have a strong opinion too on how to obtain Simplicity: just by avoiding Complexity, right? That, I will discuss.

"Ideas are cheap and plentiful"

Linus Paulin (1901-1994), awarded Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Peace and one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, used to say that "the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas". Ideas are like memes: they float around us. Anyone can catch one and pass it to someone else. Catching an idea doesn't make you its owner, since probably thousands of people around the planet had probably quite the same idea at the same moment. So, when you start a project you can't do much of an idea. It's not even a starting point. As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of 37Signals, say in their book REWORK:

"Ideas are cheap and plentiful. The original pitch idea is such a small part of a business that's it's almost negligible. The real question is how you execute."

In the field of Design, ideas is the raw material you play with before you start working seriously.

From low to high resolution

To follow Linus Paulin trail, generating a lot of ideas is the necessary primary step in the process of designing a product, a service, a business, or anything requiring to be designed, i.e. practically anything… But the goal of generating ideas is not to "Discover the Greatest Idea Ever" among a collection of them (a complete non-sense perpetuated by the advertising industry egomania) but to create a sufficient chaos around you. Indeed, in life sciences as in design, creation emerges from chaos.
Now, make this experiment at home: put one single idea in a box and shake it for an hour. When you'll open it, you will still get the same old idea, somewhat damaged. Now, put 80 ideas in a big box and shake it for an hour, what you'll get is a living chaos, a place where you can start working, where material start to grow spontaneously.

In fact, the process of product design resembles the one of increasing the image resolution : if you have 12 pixels (or 12 ideas), you cannot identify anything that could make sense; if you have 80 pixels (ideas), a shape starts to emerge; when you reach 200 pixels (200 ideas) you start visualizing something real. This is the material you need to actually start designing. To get 200 ideas (or inputs), simply put 4 people in a room for 60 minutes and have them generating 1 idea each per minute (it is recommended to provide food and water though.)


From order emerges chaos…

When the primary material for thinking is limited to a small series of ideas, things seems to be in order, the world looks simple, the solution near : idea 1 + idea 2 = idea 3. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it is never that simple. Simplicity is not the first phase of a project but the very last one. Let's reflect on what Steve Jobs said in 1994:


“When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop… But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem — and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.“

In design, if you want to reach a certain level of quality - or simply exist -, you need to go through complexity, chaos. It is a necessary step where you might feel lost for a moment. Things start to be confusing, you have too much stuff on the table, you're not sure anymore that these inputs make any sense. Be reassured, that's a good thing, you're on the right path.

Actually, you don't really have a choice: it seems that complexity naturally evolves from any ordered system. The phenomenon of increasing complexity is actually described by Stephen Wolfram in his book "A new Kind of Science". Wolfram conducted hundreds of experiment all leading to the same conclusion :

"If we see a complicated mechanical device, we normally assume that the plans from which the device was built must also somehow be correspondingly complicated. But the results [of experiments] show that at least sometimes such an assumption can be completely wrong. For the patterns we saw are in effect built according to very simple plans—that just tell us to start with a single black cell, and then repeatedly to apply a simple cellular automaton rule. Yet what emerges from these plans shows an immense level of complexity."

One example: the following diagram shows a simple automated rule (called cellular automata #30) developing as a series of black or white cells:


First, the automata rule #30 develops itself as follow:


But when you run the program long enough, the following result eventually appears:


…and from chaos emerges order.

What we see in the Wolfram's experiment #30 is both order and chaos living together in the same space. On the micro level, the automata seems to rule the development of the cells. It is true but only to a certain extend. At one point, the behavioral patterns cannot be predicted anymore. Patterns start to appears in a very random manner. But on top of this developing chaos, something extraordinary appears: a macro structure (here shaped as a large triangle) that you can only perceive when enough cells have been generated and if you look at the organization on a macro level.


The repercussions of Wolfram's discovery spread way beyond mathematics, to physics, biology, biomedical… there is indeed a remarkable connection between Worlfram's automata and many biological variations in nature.
Romanesco flower is a beautiful example of such automated behavioral pattern, where both order and chaos cooperate towards the same goal.

Simplicity needs complexity

For John Maeda, "simplicity and complexity need each other". In his book, "The Ten Laws of Simplicity" (MIT Press), John Maeda states:

"Establishing a feeling of simplicity in design requires making complexity consciously available in some explicits forms. […] Within the same experience, finding the right balance between simplicity and complexity is difficult."

John Maeda explains that simplicity needs complexity to stand out. The more complex is the background (market, technology, information…), the more simplicity pops out in comparison. This would explain the success of Apple products: the (apparent) simplicity of the iPod, the iPhone, and Mac OSX in general produces a great difference with other operating systems, which still struggle to reach a sufficient level of simplicity.
But we all know that Apple products are not intrinsically simpler than any other system (Unix is probably one of the most complex one actually). Apple Products offer a dual experience where complexity and simplicity exists at the same time in two intensities of the same wave.


Dealing with complicated Products and Services


Clients and customers are afraid of complexity because once you start using a product it's too late to simplify it. When you're in the bus trying to send an email from your mobile, you're not going to change the user interface or to rename the function, are you? You're not going to change de customer service process at the airline desk, are you? All you can do is trying not to get angry… End users often feel frustrated because they have to adapt to the product and not they other way around, and doing so THEY BECOME THE PRODUCT of the device or the service, they become the tool that the bad customer service uses to make business with.

A product can feel complex and complicated because its syntax is fuzzy: functions are too elaborated, there are too many of them or they offer too many possibilities, interface is not legible, the flows are unclear, some functionalities are hidden, it doesn't match with current mental models… Too often, as designers and engineers, we don't deal enough with the natural complexity of a subject. We avoid it, we don't dig deep enough into complexity before we start simplify. We're afraid of complexity.

How to handle complexity in Design

Increase the quantity of ideas until you start creating chaos
As Steve Jobs experienced it and Stephen Wolfram's demonstrated it, complexity is a natural step of creation. Produce enough material to create complexity when you feel that there's only order. Wait to reach the critical mass before to start organizing.

Play with the material until you can discover the structure in it
You might not be able to notice it yet, but organization is already here. And your job, as a designer, is to DISCOVER the hidden existing structure, not to invent it. There are several type of actions you can take with the material during the discover phase:

  • Grouping: find similarities and differences, use them to create relationship between inputs
  • Removing: simplify by suppressing material, some ideas might be unrelevant
  • Adding: some areas will feel empty, regenerate ideas to increase the resolution in these areas
  • Changing: refine, specify, modify the information until it fits into the emerging structure
  • Sorting: move groups around to find the logic between them
  • Defining: each space has a role, define them specifically to help yourself understanding the structure

Refine the structure to create a framework
A framework is both a visual representation of a strategy and a practical tool used for defining possible courses of action. As a strategic metaphor, the framework will help define the goals and values of a product.

Use Information Design
The designers approach for defining a framework is grounded on precise visual representation. As designers, we can heavily rely on our capacity to represent immaterial concepts graphically. Information Design is a way to bring simplicity in complexity, but it is also a way to verify the rightness of a strategy. If graphic objects don't fit well with each other, it's probably that the framework logic has a flaw. On the opposite, when the thinking has been pushed enough, the visual representation speaks for itself.

A simple visual conclusion (that should speak for itself)


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