Simple: Less Is More

illustration of man holding feather
Illustration by Serge Bloch

IN1980, the typical credit card contract was about a page and a half long. Today it is 31 pages. The consequence is that people no longer read these agreements, then find their accounts canceled or subject to high interest rates. Here are some examples of the mess we’ve gotten into thanks to the crisis of complexity:

These are just a few examples of how complexity is costing us money, undermining government and business, and putting our health and even our lives at risk. This crisis is just now beginning to be the subject of public debate. But for the most part, how are we as citizens, patients, businesspeople, consumers, investors, borrowers, and students responding? With even more complacency.

We have allowed complexity to get the better of us—permitted companies, organizations, governments, and institutions to overwhelm our good judgment and violate our basic rights. We have passively paid when faced with indecipherable fees and ignored dozens of mysterious features on gadgets we can’t figure out how to use. We find ourselves lost in multilayered phone trees and jumping through hoops to make insurance claims.

All of which raises the question: Why do we tolerate complexity in our lives? Most of us figure we don’t have a choice. We may even occasionally blame ourselves for being overwhelmed and confused. (“This is over my head, I must be an idiot.”) So we pay the occasional overdraft fee of $34 that strikes us as unfair and certainly annoying, but not devastating. We don’t see the ice age of complexity approaching in the distance, because we only experience small blizzards of paperwork. So we trudge along, hoping that we’re not too misinformed and that we’re not getting cheated too badly.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

There is a powerful antidote and a practical answer within our grasp. It can be summed up in a word: simplicity.

Making things simple requires dedication to clarity, honesty, discipline, and intelligence. Simplicity works—in business, in government, in life. People can and should demand it. We need a call to action: the spark for a movement toward reduction of societal, governmental, and corporate complexity. Before writing our book Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, we worked with Carnegie-Mellon University to establish a Communications Design Center that combined communications theory and cognitive research. For the past 30 years, we’ve been out there on the front lines, witnessing firsthand how companies, government agencies, and everyday people are coping with the crisis of complexity.

We’ve learned several invaluable lessons.

We refuted the erroneous belief that simplicity was “dumbing down” by continually stressing that it is an effective shorthand for clarity, accessibility, and usability.