Skip to main content

Complicated vs. Complexity

and how Design Thinking helps tame one and avoid the other

Recently the topic of complicated versus complex has come up both in relation to a book group discussion I was leading on REWORK and also with an online Twitter-based chat I was moderating on innovation. It’s pretty central to everything I’ve learned, experienced and thought about with regard to design, so it seemed worth it to capture it here.

A central challenge in design (and ‘design thinking’ in general) is unraveling complexity and making the merely complicated something that can be systematized. Achieving the latter paves the way for spending more time on the former. Innovation can be seen in both: incremental innovation making processes more streamlined and disruptive innovation made possibly by freeing resources from the mundane and allowing them to turn their gaze to the blue sky.

Back to ‘Rework’: One of the things that I’ve always gotten from everything the guys at 37signals write and speak is ‘do only what is necessary to get the thing you’re working on, working’ - don’t overbuild, overplan or try and solve everything ailing the world in one go. You’ll never do it, and what you DO get done will be done badly because you’re rushing to get another rock rolled up the hill. I come back to my favorite quote: “You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole” (p69-70). I was reminded of this reading an article in the NY Times recently by David Segal entitled “It’s Complicated: Making Sense of Complexity”. Segal talks about our penchant as a society to equate complexity with progress. The problems arise when that complexity is the goal and not the by-product of solving a problem. Even if it IS a by-product of solving a problem - you may just have not solved the problem very well.

Central to his story is an important difference between complicated and complex. Rocket science is complicated - but if you follow certain steps you get a fairly predictable result, even if those steps are, well, tricky. Financial trading, particularly of the sort that has gotten us into a bit of a pickle in recent years, is complex. Complex to the point of being opaque: inscrutable tangles of dealings that are often there only to mask risk and conceal the tracks showing where all the money went.

I take this to heart when working on web applications and user interfaces, and strive to take Segal’s, Fried’s and Hansson’s advice: build a solution that is only as complicated as it needs to be to get the job done. Getting that job done means actively avoiding complexity in order to make the opaque transparent, to bring clarity and understanding to ideas and interfaces that were previously inscrutable.

The challenge is akin to good writing. The clearest way to say something is often with the fewest words—but knowing where to draw the line is essential. Enough words to convey meaning without losing the soul of the message you want to convey. Interfaces are no different—witness the success of the one-button iPhone.

I’ve always felt that the job of good graphic design is to reduce or remove complexity, to organize information in an easy-to-understand, easy-to-find, aesthetically pleasing manner. Business cards, annual reports, websites—differing amounts of information but same challenge.

Originally posted on

Filed under: Design Thinking

Other recent posts