The art of being simple
Keeping things simple is the most effective form of communication and design
It was a summer afternoon and our classroom on the first-floor terrace of the old studio was like the inside of a preheated oven. We were a class of 21-year-old brats, all postgraduate students of mass communication. Some garrulous, some pensive, some flirting, some numb and some just quietly plotting their escape. I was vaguely aware that we were waiting for a guest lecture, but to this day I have no idea who it was that finally bounded up the steps and appeared in our class.
He was a young man who had been a former student at our institute and was now gainfully employed in an advertising agency. For the student in me, he was an alien. He picked up a piece of chalk from the teacher’s desk, turned his back to us and wrote four large letters of the English alphabet on the blackboard.
K I S S
The noise in the classroom dipped sharply. He had our attention. “KISS,” he said, and paused to get a good look at our group. “Not kiss,” he added. “It’s an acronym for the most imperative formula for all design. Who can tell me what it stands for?”
None of us managed to conjure up the right answer. “Keep it simple, stupid,” he finally elaborated.
It was a shocking idea for me at the time. All my education and experiences had ingrained in me the feeling that if I have a simple idea and dare to execute and submit it, then it must be a very dull idea. I had internalized that the only way to get noticed among my peers was to express myself in complicated language and create things that flaunted the exceptional effort and unique inputs that had gone into it. Some of us were naturals at this game, some worked hard at it and a handful of us were always close to conceding defeat.
Over the years, I have learnt again and again that keeping it simple is the most effective form of communication and design. It took me years to get over the notion that unless I had worn myself out trying to create something, it couldn’t be of any value.
As a cameraperson, I would feel like an imposter when people admired something that had been an easy shot to take. As a storyteller, I learnt from the audience that stories have their own life and don’t need to be dressed up in verbose metaphors and discursive analogies that obscure their essence. As a parent, our children taught me the efficacy of simplicity in the design of our lives.
We understand the value of minimalism after we have suffered from the mess of clutter. It takes getting stuck in a maze to teach us to retrace our steps and get a bird’s-eye view before we start again.
Keep it simple, stupid, I sing to myself every time I am ready to design something new. I need to drown out the voice that is driven more by the desire to impress than to be effective.
Of course we need to know how to make an impression too, because the world often demands from us that we display the pretensions of being complex and inscrutable. What is your unique selling proposition, we are asked and we offer jargon-laced replies. We worry about being rejected if we don’t dress up our creative pitches with buzzwords and balderdash.
Years after I had ceased to be a student, another lesson in keeping it simple came from my teacher, Father Os, in a therapy group. Many of us would often report how hard we had tried to make something work, and our frustration with not being able to achieve what we felt we should be able to. In our conflict, we would always assume that our goal was legitimate and we just had to tweak our strategy a little to reach where we wanted.
I was struggling to make peace with a senior colleague who was regularly dismissive of me in the newsroom. Another person was trying to figure out how to cheer up an elderly parent during his daily evening tea with him. A third was trying to fit in with her large, hostile joint family.
Father Os would speak so simply and succinctly that it would take time to absorb the depth of what he had suggested. “If something you are trying to do again and again isn’t working like you hoped it would, then you must stop doing it,” he would say.
“If you are failing to make it work, stop trying to make it work. The lesson is to step back and re-examine your goals, not get hooked to a process that ends with frustration repeatedly.
“Why unnecessarily martyr yourself when the problem doesn’t want to solve itself? Un-choose the problem!”
Just like that he would take apart the design of the conflict and show us the futility of our efforts in the first place.
One of the joys of growing up is finding ourselves in charge of the drawing board of our lives. After we have spent our early youth wanting to have it all, another set of aspirational years trying to claim it all, we finally get to a point where we have agency over the choices we make. We have tasted victory and defeat, been friends with both recognition and humiliation, and we are ready to sift through temptations and create a design that works for us. Let this thought stay with you.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.