The Rise in Complexity in the Search for Minimalism

As part of the final year Contextual Design Essay at Brunel we write an essay on a topic of our own choosing. I decided to write about how a the lack of understanding in coding and electronics has separated designers and engineers with the general public; but how this is being rectified by educating the next generation. Take a look at a few images of the printed article below and scroll to the bottom for the full essay.



Part 1


Stylish electronic products are at the forefront of what the general public appreciates as design, and these items have become far more than simply the new essential item to own. They now not only affect culture, fashion and knowledge on a global scale, but influence our day to day lives through the technology obsession that saturates what we do. These devices have evolved from the ugly obtrusive beige or black boxes in the early 1990's into highly fashionable products; with companies now aiming to excel in both function and aesthetic alike. They have become complex, exquisite and considered pieces of precision engineering in the form of a product with utmost complexity, yet exuding an astoundingly minimalist appearance.

This drive for simplicity has been lead by designers and companies such as Naoto Fukasawa, Apple, Nokia, Yves Behar and Industrial Facility, and has become something exceptionally desirable to consumers. People now have a deeper awareness of these alluring products due to their promotion in the media and the general push towards high design products by companies. This appreciation has caused companies to focus on the simplification of the physical form and user interfaces of their products providing the consumers with exactly what they want. Devices such as mobile phones and laptops are perhaps the pinnacle of this philosophy, however this thinking has trickled down into nearly all electronic devices including kitchen appliances, watches, cars, televisions and connected technology.

Since the millennium technology has become an increasingly core part of our culture and The International Telecoms Union has predicted there are now more mobile devices than people on this Earth [1]. Pre-millennials have experienced what it is like to use mobile phones with no internet access, no colour screen and no camera, and over the last decade have adapted to using the incredible number of features that have become available on these devices. Initially these were built into extremely complex products that only the most savvy users could use; however in 2007 Apple changed all that with the launch of the first iPhone. Forbes states how the iPhone helped consumers finally became comfortable relying on their mobile phones for much of their information and entertainment, and how it's simplicity in use completely changed the way we interact with our phones to this day.

Due to these experiences of using different devices, consumers now know what real simplicity is, and are extremely aware, when using a product, where this has not been the focus. They know what it is like to use a good product, they know how navigate a well designed menu and they know what to expect when using gestures on a touch screen. With the physical product they can feel when a device is well put together, they understand how well something can be engineered and can tell the quality of the material on their hands. Because of this new level of understanding consumers can instantly put a value on the product they are using. If it isn't simple and straightforward to use, manufactured using high precision techniques, made from high quality materials and object of simplicity and beauty, it is far less likely to be purchased by someone who is now aware of these flaws. John Maeda in his book 'Laws of Simplicity' states how simplicity and complexity need each other, as we can only appreciate simplicity when we see examples of how complex something can actually be. We need the bad to see the good.[2]


Part 2


As these devices become an even more essential part of our day to day lives, with users adapting and learning how to interact with them, we are starting to loose touch with the way these products actually work. Electronic devices are inherently complex and we can now carry the power of a desktop computer from 2010 in our pocket [3]. The incredibly background complexity these devices have is completely hidden by the foreground simplicity designers and engineers have crafted through simple UI's and minimalist hardware. Most consumers aren't even aware of the level of complexity hidden in their pockets, and the majority won't even be able to comprehend how they work. 

Hiding the complexity is a common practice in design, especially in consumer products, as users want to get what they want from a product with minimal fuss or inhibition. The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through reduction; so if something is not needed, designers get rid of it [2]. This is one of the core rules which John Maeda says should be used in products, and this thinking is certainly at the forefront of current products. A similar though process is covered in Donald A. Norman's book 'Living With Complexity' there are chapters upon chapters discussing how people want more capabilities and more ease of use, but not necessarily more features or more simplicity. They want understandable devices that are easy to comprehend, and easy to use; as when something is too complex it is confusing, but when something is too simple it is perceived as boring [4]. Therefore presenting these features to the user in the correct way is essential.

However successfully designers are presenting this complexity to users, it is causing a severe problem. A vast divide in understanding between the users and designers is forming; with consumers becoming surprisingly apt at understanding foreground simplicity even when it isn't that simple, and designers pushing the intricacy of the background complexity further and further. This in itself may not appear problematic, but when there is a divide in knowledge, there will naturally be a breakdown in understanding, communication and empathy, eventually leading to products the user does not want or more likely be able to use to the fullest extent. As technology is moving towards interconnect world of 'the internet of things' and 'quantified self', the gap will be only widened as the background data and communication that define these products are incredibly complex and extremely hard to understand.


Part 3


However all is not lost. Coders, Designers and Engineers have traditionally been people who worked in the background of companies far from the public eye, with marketers and business folk being at the forefront of the company. This has slowly been changing over the years, and pursuits that were once synonymous with 'geeks' and 'nerds' are now becoming jobs people aspire to have. This change in social direction has partially been due to the rise in 'maker culture' but also in part to companies promoting the quality of the manufacturing processes. Companies now not only reveal their new products, but also the details in how they are made and what makes their product special. Currently the focus is still on the physical background complexity of products, but soon this is likely to roll through to software engineers.

This change will happen for a number of reasons. Public opinion of coding is slowly starting to turn around with people starting to see increasingly innovative and interesting apps on their phones, and mainstream media flaunting how start up app companies can be worth millions within months. This public opinion and market success has only happened because of programmers, coders and developers driving themselves to become more creative. And as people now use their phone on an almost hourly basis their work is becoming a part of people’s lives, but more importantly is now influencing it. They now have the power to change the way people use products and can even change culture as a whole. Gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and swiping to navigate were non-existent less than a decade ago, but give an iPad to a toddler and they instinctively now know how to use it. Their work has educated a whole generation.

This intuition in interaction design has not happened by chance and new unofficial 'digital standards' are being formed on a yearly basis. These interaction touch points can be anything from a menu style to a simple gesture and are becoming part of the muscle memory we have. What these professionals code is becoming something each of us are, adapting out physical movements and changing the way we think. All it takes is a few minutes using your phone, looking at all your different apps, observing how you instinctively use them before realising you have never seen an instruction manual for them, yet can use them better than your DVD player from 2002. People designing the background complexity in our devices are now intrinsically aware of how we work and how we think, giving us “just in time” learning [4] meaning we learn how something works just by exploring the product. iPhones don't even come with an instruction manual.


Part 4


"The problem is when complexity is considered arbitrary and unnecessary." [2] This is the thinking of a large portion of the population and it greatly inhibits the scope of their understanding along with limiting their willingness to learn. For a long time we have been content with just using products and interacting with devices, yet as creatives get involved in these industries they are starting to encourage others to get involved as well. This is not simply through education, telling people they 'have to know how something works', or trying to force understanding; it is through a language consumers understand, product.

These have been made to include people in communities of makers, allowing seemingly unknowledgeable individuals to create amazing projects they would never have been able to before. Not only this, but due to their technical make up the devices can also be used for extremely complex projects built by professionals. These products, specifically the Arduino and Raspberry Pi, are incredibly accessible without being dummed down in anyway. There is no hidden background complexity and no simplified foreground simplicity. They are the physical simile to an iPhone interface, containing a huge amount of power and functionality but gently easing you into it, letting you learn as you go, finding out new functions as you need them. Not only has this empowered basic users encouraging them to explore further into coding and electronics, it has seamlessly started to draw the general public and professionals closer together. By narrowing the gap and allowing for unified devices to be used by all, it has creating a community of knowledgeable people who are extremely willing to help at any point.

The Arduino has been at the forefront of this for quite some time, and what was initially produced to help creatives and designers to rapidly prototype products has evolved into so much more. Accessibility has been the centre of the Arduino for a long time, and the first starter kits were clearly designed for people with little to no knowledge of electronics, and on eBay variations of these kits number in their thousands. This market saturation, alongside well documented step by step guides on the website, has made the Arduino the market leader, and is now the go to source for new coders and electronic fanatics.

For some people this is not what they want. Making circuits can even be considered too deep into the background complexity of electronics, and vast numbers of people will be put off by having to make circuits using resistors, capacitors and LED's. The initial stage might be in gaining some understanding in how foreground simplicity actually works, deciphering the code behind it. This top down approach is where a product such as the Raspberry Pi is in its element.

In essence the Raspberry Pi is a minuscule (the size of an iPhone) computer that runs Linux, an open source operating system. It was created to be used by tinkerers and electronic hobbyists, but has quickly developed into a vast array of products with many being focused on education. The Kano PC, a recently successful project on Kickstarter, is one of the best examples of this, having raised $1.5 million dollars, well over their initial aim of $100,000 [5]. The aim of the product is to allow people to learn to code, create programs and understand how a computer interface works, extremely quickly. A quote on their Kickstarter page says "In 2 hours you can go from knowing nothing, to building a computer and basic games." and this shows how truly accessible the device is. After coding their very first few computer games on the Kano, Natalie and Gabriela (aged 12 & 13) said "We felt like we were actually the person who made it, not that we were just playing it. You could make your own games which is so fun." And Job Hollar (aged 14) said "It's educational but it's also so much fun. They come with sticker sheets!". Both of these simple statements show how easy it is to encourage children and all people to learn to code and program; It just has to be done in an extremely approachable way. It isn't about stripping back the complexity, it is about presenting it in a simple minimalist, understandable form.

J. Paul Gibson a computer scientist at the National University of Ireland has been teaching children as young 5 how to program, and many are able to make games such as noughts and crosses with a surprising amount of ease [6]. Extensive research shows that, because young brains are so adept at picking up languages, it’s best to introduce children to foreign tongues as early as possible; so starting to learn the language to code early makes a lot of sense. This will become increasingly apparent as the world becomes more digital, and interfaces saturate our environment. It is essential for younger generations to build up an understanding of how their world, the world of the future, will work. Schools are starting to cotton on to this idea and many are investing in new courses and new equipment to educate children, however this education needs to be run up through the generations to avoid them being left behind.


Part 5


Educating children to code, program, design and develop will enable them be aware of background complexity in their products and will give them full understanding of how to create simple, minimal interfaces. Their enjoyment for these new areas will allow for incredible innovation and a vast amount of change to take place in the electronics industry, but we must not be passengers to this. Modern day adults seem to have lost their inquisitive nature and we are now more than happy to watch this new generation of digital trailblazers make their mark whilst accepting that we just don't understand. Cultivating their ambition is crucial and of paramount importance so we must equip ourselves to support them. But it is not just about educating the up and coming generation.

We ourselves must strive to grasp this complexity to allow intricate products to fit into our lives seamlessly. Soon there will be no division between, physical, data and interface design - interconnected devices and the quantified self will make sure of this. The world will quickly become a very complex place and it is no longer acceptable for us to marvel at the people behind these products. We need ambition to learn how they work for ourselves, allowing us to adapt and use products in the most appropriate ways possible. Hopefully this will be kickstarted by the next jump in technology as 3D printing will make it feasible to build products in their own how. Becoming knowledgeable in how to build electronic circuits, code software and manufacture custom minimalist products could allow us to bring the biggest change in the consumer market. But to do this we must be willing to learn and understand.

Our parents were able to service cars, bleed radiators and knit jumpers. Our children will be able to design interfaces, code websites and 3D print products. We need to stop being OK with only knowing how to use something, we must start to understand the complexity we have avoided for so long.

Rob Bye

Rob Bye, London, United Kingdom

Industrial design and a co-founder of morrama. He has worked at startups and top companies such seymourpowell.