By Phil Le Brun
Simple is difficult.
Dave Trott talks about how stupid people think complicated is clever. And Steve Jobs famously believed that getting your thinking clean and simple could ‘move mountains’. So the smartest people know simple is clever, because to get there you have to go above and beyond complicated. We’re in the business of simple. Boiling down audience insights, product benefits and creative ideas to a simple message. Finding the core of an idea means stripping it down to its most critical essence. An idea in a couple of words. Cutting out the superfluous elements. The example that always springs to mind for me is from ‘Made to Stick’. Southwest Airlines’s CEO’s had a simple intent; ‘We are THE low cost airline’. Seems simple, but getting there can be difficult.
So how do we get there? I’ve been thinking about this recently and was listening to a podcast about Occam’s razor. Oh here we go… but bear with me, it’s a line of reasoning you’ve probably heard before. ‘The simplest explanation is usually the correct one’. Detectives use this to deduce the likeliest culprit in a murder case — you know, the husband did it. Doctors use it to determine the illness behind a set of symptoms.
One of the key takeouts for me from the discussion was of course simplicity is important but we should be wary that this principle isn’t misused. The razor isn’t a tool that establishes proof.
Take, for example, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The idea that he was killed by a single, overzealous Communist gunman is a much simpler explanation than the idea that he was murdered by a CIA conspiracy, which would involve treachery on levels unseen in U.S. history to that point. But does the fact that one explanation is simpler mean it’s correct? Conspiracy theorists can produce all manner of circumstantial evidence that points to many different plots. But according to Occam’s razor, this extra evidence would be considered irrelevant in the face of the lone gunman explanation. Hmm, simple really is complicated…
The other thing I learnt was although we like to easily categorise things into simple and complicated, simplicity is subjective. This is an interesting consideration for our work. For one person the simplest explanation of a glowing shadowy orb in a photograph is a combination of light and exposure, for another person the simplest explanation is a ghost.
But back to the course, where the goal seems simple. Finish with a great book that will get me where I want to go. But in the past few weeks that ‘simple’ ambition has become increasingly complex. Complicated feedback. Complicated emotions. Complicated self-doubt and relationships with the work.
And simplicity alone isn’t enough. You can boil down an idea to a pithy compact phrase, but it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.‘The earth is flat’ for example is a simple thought. Not a great one though is it? For me the best ideas are simple, clever and fun. Sounds basic, but for some reason it’s taken me a while to get here. The work I like springs off these principles. Obviously not everything can be dumb-funny-Skittles work but fun is so, so important. Even serious messages expressed in a fun way resonate for me much more, Dumb Ways to Die for example.
So Occam’s razor and all else considered in the final few weeks, SIMPLE, CLEVER and FUN will be the words that glimmer in neon when I close my eyes and can’t find the words to write or the concept I’m chasing.