Complexity in our complex world: how designers can tame complexity

on 9th January 2020

(Last updated 29th January 2024)

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  - Leonardo da Vinci

A very sensible thing to say Leonardo. Elegance and ease of use are often down to simplicity, not just in terms of design and aesthetics, but also features and functions. If a product only has a few features it’s usually easier to understand and operate.


As a model of design simplicity, a table chair is a great example. Possibly this nice Quaker number. Look at it - it's beautiful. For me it seems to satisfy that most famous of Arts and Craft principles: form follows function.

This chair is comfortable to sit on, It’s beautiful to look at (as it is unblemished by erroneous detail) and it’s made with quality wood. I know this because I can see the raw material. If I could touch it I would be able to feel the grain of the wood and the quality of the finish.

I often hear this quote from now deceased ex-lifestyle salesman Steve Jobs: "Design is not how it looks but how it works" this chair works because it is comfortable to sit on. If this chair was uncomfortable I doubt it would be held in much regard. It would be a useless object, a bit like this useless cheese grater.


Useless cheesegrater by Jeremy Huchison


But surely this is a far too simple example for our complex, ever evolving digital world. After all, a chair is an archetype. I have been sitting in chairs before I understood what a chair, or even the act of sitting, was. And they really only serve one major purpose; I don’t wish to stand, what shall I do? I shall sit. Oh, look at this nice quaker chair.

Often we require much more complex solutions to how we interact with the world around us.

When thinking about our need for complexity I was reminded of the demise of Google Reader, an RSS feed aggregator popular several years ago (Google shut it down in 2013). Google Reader had been part of my daily ritual for a number of years. Its retirement prompted me to check out the raft of feed aggregator services that were popping up in my feeds, all excitedly selling themselves as the best alternative to Google Reader.

So I checked a few out - and got a little frustrated by the amount of compromise over control I would have to give up - many of the services were offering stripped down, overviews of my feeds (usually with a prominent and mysteriously curated selection I didn't ask for) all so that they could try to offer a simpler product - simpler in its use, and simpler in it’s features and functionality: and this was exactly not what I was looking for - I wanted complexity. I wanted control. I wanted all the features Google Reader offered. This made me think a little on why I liked Google Reader - I wanted the breadth of features Google Reader offered even though I didn't use them all - I wanted options. I wanted features. I had got used to Google Reader, it was like an old friend, a comfy tracksuit, my favourite mug to drink tea from. It wasn't perfect (what, or who is?) but I was used to its dense landing page, it's no frills Windows-like setting and management areas - quite cumbersome at times, a little ugly, but lots of features, lots of control. The design is no way perfect, but once I had got used to it, it was my pal, my friend. 

We expect a lot from the devices, websites and apps we use on a day to day basis. Much more than simply wanting a nice sit down on a Quaker chair. My phone is no longer a phone, it has a multitude of uses. Think of the last time you had to learn a brand new operating system for a new mobile, computer or smart TV interface - you had to learn how to use it. It might appear simple, beautifully realised and a wonder of ease of use - but that didn't happen instantly. There is always a learning curve, however short.

So sometimes we need complexity to deal with complex tasks. And sometimes we actively desire complexity. UX/Design guru-type Don Norman uses a lovely example in his book ‘Living with Complexity’ of when we actively pursue a more complicated experience.

His example is the humble cup of coffee. I love coffee but try not to drink too much of the stuff, but I always have a mug after dragging myself out of bed in the morning. I don't want to mess about in the morning, I am time poor - my coffee making priority is speed. I chuck some pre-ground coffee out of a packet into a cafetiere, pour over boiling water, wait a bit, pour into a mug. Add milk. Drink. Job done.

But there is another instance of coffee making, one which requires a lot more complexion for (arguably) a similar result:



The Balancing Siphon Coffee Maker by Royal Coffee Makers.

Here is Don Norman’s example of a complex way to make coffee using the Balancing Siphon Coffee Maker:

“Put the water in the right hand container, the coffee in the left. Light the fire under the right-hand container and when the water boils, the resulting air pressure forces the water into the left-hand container, where the water mixes with the coffee. The left-hand side is now heavier than the right-hand side, which causes a cover to drop over the flame, allowing the right-hand side to cool, decreasing its pressure. The coffeemaker’s manual says this creates a vacuum on the right that sucks the coffee back into the container, straining the beans out as it makes its passage.” 

Now you could argue that this gives you a better cup of coffee - I would imagine you would certainly be more smug when drinking a cup (and you probably have a top-knot) - but is this complexity really needed? Or is this complexity all part of the experience, a satisfying ritual?

This example illustrates that sometimes there can be a need or a desire for a complex experience. In other words, we should not fetishise simplicity above all else. We should not always run scared of complexity and assume that we can create a ‘one click’ solution to every problem.

Instead, as designers and user experience practitioners, it should be our aim to tame complexity, not over simplify and lose features and functions in an attempt to give a ‘simple’ solution.

There is a wealth of writing and thinking around complexity and simplicity (there are links to a couple of books at the end of this post), but as a starting point, below are a few pointers that I have found useful when planning and designing interfaces for complex products or services.


Use compartmentalization - a very logical and obvious starting point, and a method that can be applied early in the planning stages of any project. Grouping features into logical ‘compartments’ is a way of defining focus - users can easily ignore whole ‘compartments’ of features if they can quickly deduce those features that are not needed for the task in hand. Visual Design can really make a difference with compartmentalization with colour, scale and position being useful tools in reinforcing the differentiation of feature sets.

If you are reading this at a desktop computer take a look at your keyboard. If it’s like mine, my numeral pad is separated into its own unit, and most of the time I ignore it unless I need it, and when I do, I shift my focus. No colour difference involved or different styling, just grouping, compartmentalization. And as a user I did a little work - I shifted my focus from one area of my keyboard to another - not a huge ask at all and proof that you don't always have to hide away features for users to maintain focus.

An easy solution to dealing with complexity is to hide features behind buttons or actions. I see it as a last resort. Introducing an interaction to hide/show features down on the importance hierarchy when your feature list is huge I can agree with. Concealing features to maintain your minimal aesthetic is style over content. Only do it if all else fails.

Style over substance

Don’t fall for the white space aesthetic - beautiful, minimal design is appealing, it fulfills that ambiguous word ‘clean’ - minimal, simple layout designs look wonderful and I wouldn't want to put people off striving for this aesthetic, but the temptation with minimal design is to hide functionality behind buttons and actions, or to remove features completely. Start with the worst case scenario, keep all your functionality visible - that is the complexity you need grapple with. Chasing an aesthetic trope before you have done any planning can give you a headache later on in the design process. And of course this does not mean you can’t have a minimal aesthetic if your offering is complex - you just have a design challenge on your hands!

Noise to signal

Get your noise to signal ratio right - treat lightly graphical elements that are not needed or serve as decoration only.

There will always be functions and features that need to be more prominent than others. Have in mind that elements can be ‘turned down’. Instead of ramping up the visual prominence of an element, turn down all others. 

So there are various methods that can be put to good use in taming complexity and designing useful interfaces - and its worth remembering that sometimes we need users to put in a little effort too.

Going back to my Quaker chair. I could take this lovely chair, paint it hot pink and varnish it. I am sure it would look quite mad, and someone out there would think it just right for their post-modern brutalist-pop loft apartment in rejuvenated Dalston. I haven't designed a new chair but ‘styled’ an existing design. "Don't think too much of style" said William Morris over 200 years ago. I agree, best to design the most comfortable chair we can, one without pointless decoration or detail. One that I can sit on for the 20 minutes I might be eating my tea without having to think about the act of sitting. As long as it fits in with the other clutter in my home I would be happy. Mine’s an Americano please. Splash of milk.

Living with Complexity by Don Norman is published by MIT Press and can be found at the MIT Press website. Another designer type who has written great words on the relationship between simplicity and complexity is John Maeda, and his book The Laws of Simplicity, (also published by MIT press) can also be found at the MIT Press website.

For those of you interested I am using for my RSS feeds.

This article was posted in Design, User Experience