3 Reasons Simple Isn't Always Better

Simplicity in business is something to strive for, but don't underestimate the advantages of complexity.
CEO & Founder, The Non-Obvious Company
August 20, 2013

We have all chased simplicity and lost at some point in our lives. Every time it happens, it feels like that moment when the train doors close just seconds before you can pass through them. For me it's every time a client has to squeeze just one more word into the perfect design, or when I answer a question on stage after a talk using way more words than necessary.

In the iconic book Made To Stick, the authors promise that simplicity is one of the basic keys to creating ideas that people can understand and readily share. In my own book Likeonomics, which is about building trust through likeability, "simplicity" is one of the five core principles. These celebrations of simplicity have plenty of support in pop culture as well. Some of the best taglines, for example, are all about simplicity: Coca-Cola's "Open Happiness" and Corona's "Find Your Beach" taglines are two examples.

Yet we businesspeople tend to forget that outside of the nicely wrapped world of communications, there are plenty of people who love things because they are complicated. They spend hours indulging a personal passion for anything from science fiction novels to stamp collecting. The sometimes labyrinthine layers of new online video games are intentionally built to be complex. In the world of science and medicine, those with the intellect to study and further complex ideas are celebrated and honored. Finally, in the media there are many who worry that the growing soundbite style of journalism may be dumbing down the next generation of media consumers so much that they won't be able to appreciate anything deeper than the simplest of ideas.

So, with that in mind, you can see that simplicity isn't always the ideal to strive for. There are at least three reasons when you may want to consider an alternate approach.

1. Simplicity can be superficial. The line between simplifying and dumbing down an idea can be tough to spot. The reason is that the nuances which add complexity may also be the same that create context. When you take them out, the context of your idea may become superficial as a result. This problem is most common when it comes to politics, where complex issues like health care or the environment are frequently boiled down into catchy taglines that carry little meaning or context along with them.

2. Passion has layers. At the height of its popularity, the TV show Heroes was the most visible of a new form of entertainment that experts called "transmedia storytelling"—where a narrative unfolded across multiple platforms, regions and audiences. The show used anime, Web episodes, real-life gatherings and other unique elements to bring the show to life in new ways for its extremely passionate audience. Though the show was eventually a victim of its own success—lower TV ratings due to its enthusiastic Web-streaming audience led to its cancellation—the lessons around engagement and new models of entertainment that the show pioneered are legendary.

3. Clarity is underrated. The final reason simplicity may not be ideal is because it often gets confused with another quality that is arguably even more important: clarity. When we share ideas through speaking or writing, it's the clarity that helps people understand what we mean—and it's not necessarily the same as simplicity. The difference between them comes from the style of language used and the fact that focusing on clarity can still be a priority even when sharing complex ideas or concepts that require some level of knowledge or technical ability to understand.

There is plenty of evidence illustrating why simplicity is a good thing. There is not quite as much illustrating the opposite, yet when it comes to your business, the challenge isn't always finding new ways to simplify everything. Sometimes the best answer may indeed be the most complicated one.

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Rohit Bhargava is the founder and CEO of the Influential Marketing Group and a consultant dedicated to helping companies act and communicate in more human ways. He is the bestselling author of four marketing books and was recently named to the Board of Advisers for the Center For Plain Language, a nonprofit group that advocates for more clarity and plain language in government and business communications.

Photo: Thinkstock

CEO & Founder, The Non-Obvious Company