Spend any time at all looking into the question of simplicity, complexity, and design, and you’ll run into the KISS principle. Countless experts and gurus provide their recommendations on how and why to “Keep it simple, stupid,” based on the idea that simplicity is inevitably virtuous. Some of the advice is pretty good when used in the right context, but it does tend to come out a bit one-sided. We might even say it’s oversimplified.

Simplicity Cycle
Book cover – The Simplicity Cycle: A Field Guide to Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse

Trying to keep things perpetually simple misses two important principles of design. First, it overlooks the fact that changes to a design have a cumulative effect. Just as excessive complexity can render a design ineffective, excessive simplification runs the risk of over-correcting and making the design worse rather than better. That’s nobody’s idea of a good time.

For example, if I remove too many indicators from a user interface, the resulting design may confuse users instead of helping them. In my book The Simplicity Cycle, I write about an elevator indicator light that doesn’t actually indicate whether the lift is going up or going down. Looking back it’s kind of funny, but at the time it was befuddling.

Along with being confusing, excessive simplicity it can simply feel sterile and off-putting rather than engaging and attractive. That doesn’t mean simplicity is a bad idea. It just means simplicity can be done badly, in terms of both how and when we simplify.

The second design principle that KISS ignores is that when we design things, we are playing an iterative game. Sometimes the design situation calls for making things simpler. In other iterations, the best move is to make things more complicated. The key is to learn how to tell the difference between those situations, to recognize when complexity should increase and when it should decrease. That’s where The Simplicity Cycle comes in.

Using a very simple set of diagrams and a funny story or two, it aims to help readers make good decisions about simplicity and complexity in the things they design and use. It shines a light on common patterns of design and introduces a variety of tools to use in different situations.

The iterative nature of design is why the most significant word in the book’s title is “Cycle,” not “Simplicity.” To quote the book again, “The bedrock concept behind the cycle is simply that it is a cycle . . . we begin our work using one set of tools and pointing our efforts in a particular direction, then we switch to a different set of tools and head in a new direction.” Sometimes we add, sometimes we subtract. It’s important to make sure our bag of tricks includes both additive and reductive tools, and that we learn when to use each one.

Perhaps the most important phrase in the whole book is this: “Simplicity is not the point.” Simplicity is good, but it’s only part of the cycle. It ebbs and flows as the design matures. Sometimes it is exactly what we need, sometimes not. So let’s not aim to keep things simple. Instead, let’s learn how to keep making things better. Isn’t that the real point?