On Simplicity, Complexity
and Human Design
(0) Where the climax of complexity comes
we can never know for sure, but natural
movement always begins and ends with
Draw a circle which is not surrounded by
emptiness; Speak a word which does not
emerge from and return to nothing at all.
( 1) Without first grasping the difference between true complexity and mere
complicatedness, how shall we ever find simplicity? How shall we ever know
the joy of discovering for ourselves a route across an impossibly labyrinthian
high mountain pass, of returning to a camp with nothing but a stream, a fire,
and a roof made of stars?
(2) Complicatedness is difficulty which serves no purpose and is therefore
without reason or meaning; it is difficulty which is unnecessary. Nothing
else defeats the mind more quickly than having to deal, on a day-to-day basis,
with unnecessary difficulty which goes unresolved. In any rigorously hier-
archical social structure, whether it be a school, a symphonic orchestra,
or large corporation, this is the single most important factor which frustrates
the intelligence and creativity of the individual. Remarkably, in this sense,
complicatedness in Nature does not exist.
(3) Creating an image of what we think is simple and then setting out to
achieve it is the surest route to more complicatedness. The best way to come
to simplicity is by taking away, one by one -- or all at once -- the root causes
of unnecessary difficulty. The most elegant, graceful movements in dance are
the ones which have eliminated all unnecessary tension; The most powerful
rhythms and sounds of an orchestra are made by the players who have done
away with all the friction of unnecessary effort.
(4) Just as water flows around all obstacles, intelligence naturally moves to
resolve all unnecessary difficulties. Poor design imposes arbitrary blocks or
limits to the freedom of this flow.
(5) As complicatedness increases, it results in ever-more pressure and urgency
to deal with its myriad unintended side-effects. The result is a complication cycle
which only stops when the internal conflicts and contradictions become so great
that it simply breaks apart. If one however stops and steps out of the forward
momentum of this complication cycle, it becomes possible to see that the en-
countered difficulties are indeed unnecessary. In other words, complicatedness
is best dealt with by at first doing nothing. This means that we suspend the
frequently habitual patterns of what we normally do long enough for the source
of the difficulty to reveal itself. Remarkably, our common tendency is to continue
doing what we normally do only because we are for different (tacitly contradictory)
reasons highly committed to doing so. This is why doing nothing is frequently
the very most difficult thing to do.
(6) Machines are built up of parts which ideally have clear, knowable, causal
relationships with one another: turn gear a, and gear b turns twice as fast, which
in turn, moves gear c twice as fast, and so on. The structure as a whole, as well
as the parts upon which the whole depends, can be mapped in great detail. Indeed,
they are normally generated by maplike designs. Most importantly, when the machine
breaks down, through analysis of some kind, the part causing the problem can
normally be pin-pointed and either replaced or fixed. Machines become not complex
but complicated -- which in the sense we are using the term is always bad -- once
they have more gears than is strictly necessary to complete a given task.
Complication leads then to contradiction, which with machines, literally means
two movements -- or gears -- which speak -- or grind -- against one another.
Creative design anticipates potential contradiction; Creative building and repair
actualizes and maintains the design in daily life. Together, design, building and
repair constitute a living whole which might be called creative practice. All this
means is that, anyone involved with design ought best be concerned also with
building and repair, and that anyone involved in building and repair ought also
be concerned with design. This is what makes for the free flow of intelligence,
and safeguards against the corruption which comes with unnecessary division
(7) Complicatedness is frequently the result of outmoded, inappropriate ways
of thinking.The way of thinking which is the most inappropriate of all is the one
which does not see, or worse, simply tolerates, unnecessary difficulty. From
there, it is only a small step to the degeneration of cults of collusion which not
only condone, but actually cultivate complicatedness. Who has not become
dependent on a machine which we suspect has been deliberately designed to be
hard to use and even harder to repair, and, once it fails completely, as we know
it shall, becomes the designer's unjust gain and the user's recurrent frustration
(8) Complexity is another word for simplicity unfolding in time.
(9) A melody or a sentence is not built up of parts like a wall is made of bricks.
The parts of a phrase unfold into a whole, while, at the same time, they en-fold
Fold into fold, the parts reflect and refer to the whole, while the whole gives
structure and coherence to the parts. It is the movement of the whole that is primary.
Important is that this movement can neither be seen nor studied on the printed page.
(10) The complementary back and forth of simplicity and complexity forms one
of the most necessary of unities. Without the single drop of water, there is no river;
without the river, no drop. The thought which divides them is the same thought
which creates arbitrary boundaries or dams, first within itself, and then in
the world at large.
(11) As a single thread becomes the braid which becomes the magnificent finely-
woven tapestry, simplicity holds or points to that which is many-fold or complex,
while complexity enfolds or points to that which is one-fold or simple.
(12) With enough time, simplicity always unfolds -- without limit -- into natural
complexity. Sustain a single vowel sound for the duration of an entire breath,
and you become aware of the rich weave of its overtones; Walk the smooth hard
white surfaces of high mountain spring snow, and you will discover an infinity
of living textures beyond all compare.