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Simplicity: Why It Matters

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In this sample chapter from Presentation Zen, Third Edition, author Garr Reynolds talks about simplicity - in daily life, then in professional life. He discusses how designers can bring clarity, directness, subtlety, essentialness, and minimalism into their work.

This chapter is from the book

As our daily lives have become more complex, more and more people look to incorporate simplicity into their lives. But finding simplicity in the workplace or at school seems harder than ever. Professionally, people are terrified of being simple for fear of being labeled a lightweight. So “when in doubt, add more” is often the guiding principle.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of simplicity and what it means to be simple today. Many people confuse simple, for example, with simplistic, simplism, or that which is dumbed down to the point of being deceptive or misleading. To some people, simple means a kind of oversimplification of an issue, which ignores complexities and creates obfuscation and outright falsehoods. Politicians are often guilty of this type of oversimplification. But this is not the kind of simplicity I am talking about. The kind of simplicity I mean does not come from a place of laziness or ignorance or trickery; rather, it comes from an intelligent desire for clarity that gets to the essence of an issue. This kind of clarity is not easy to achieve.

Simplicity—along with other precepts such as restraint and naturalness—are key ideas found in Zen and the Zen arts: arts such as the tea ceremony, haiku, ikebana, and sumi-e, which can take many years or, indeed, a lifetime to master. There is nothing easy about them, although when performed by a master, they may seem beautifully simple. It is difficult to give a definition of simplicity, but when I say we need to create messages and design visuals that are simple, I am not talking about taking shortcuts, ignoring complexities, or endorsing meaningless sound bites and shallow content. When I use the word simple (or simplicity), I am referring to the term as essentially synonymous with clarity, directness, subtlety, essentialness, and minimalism. Designers are constantly looking for the simplest solution to complex problems. The simple solutions are not necessarily easiest for them, but the results may end up being the easiest for the end user.

The best visuals are often ones designed with an eye toward simplicity. Yet this says nothing about the specifics of a visual presentation. That will depend on the content and context. For example, even the best visuals used in support of a presentation for one audience on, say, quantum mechanics may appear complicated and confusing to a different audience. Simplicity is often used as a means to greater clarity. However, simplicity can also be viewed as a consequence of our careful efforts to craft a story and create supporting visuals that focus on our audience’s needs in a clear and meaningful way.

Simplicity is an important design principle, but simplicity itself is not a panacea. Though people usually err on the side of making presentation slides more complicated than they need to be, it is indeed possible to be “too simple.” Simplicity is the goal, but to paraphrase Albert Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Steve Jobs and the Zen Aesthetic

Steve Jobs was one of the best presenters the world of business has ever seen. When Jobs spoke on stage, he was clear and to the point. While he was CEO of Apple, his presentations generated a lot of positive buzz and released a wave of viral communication about the presentation’s content. This happened in part because the content was easily grasped and remembered by both the media and regular customers. You can’t “spread the word” if you don’t get what the word is. Jobs’s public presentations provided both verbal and visual clarity.

Jobs was a student of Zen and was influenced early on by the Japanese aesthetic. “I have always found Buddhism, especially Japanese Zen Buddhism in particular, to be aesthetically sublime,” Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson, author of the book Steve Jobs. “The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto. I’m deeply moved by what that culture has produced, and it’s directly from Zen Buddhism.” Jobs’s personal style and approach to presentations certainly embodied an essence of simplicity and clarity that was remarkable and rare among CEOs—or leaders of any kind.

Part of his great clarity could be seen in the visuals that accompanied his talks. There was a kind of “Zen aesthetic” to his presentation visuals. In Jobs’s slides, you could see evidence of restraint, simplicity, and a powerful yet subtle use of empty space. Clutter and the nonessential were strictly forbidden.

Bill Gates often provided a lesson in contrast to Jobs’s visual simplicity on stage back in 2007 when Gates was still presenting for Microsoft and I was writing my Presentation Zen blog and working on the first edition of this book. Today, Bill Gates is much better and his presentation visuals for his TED talks and Gates Foundation presentations, for example, have been good.

However, the typical style of presentation that Gates became known for back in the day, was very similar to the style of slide presentation we still see too much of today—presentations with the kind of slides that hurt more than help with audience engagement. Problems with the visuals included too many elements on one slide, overuse of bullet points (including long lines of text), cheesy-looking images, too many colors, overused gradation techniques, weak visual communication priority, and an overall impression of clutter on screen.

Both Jobs and Gates used slides to complement their talks over the years. The biggest difference was that Jobs’s visuals were a big part of his talk. The visuals were a necessary component of the talk, not just ornamentation or notes to remind him what to say. Jobs used the slides to help him tell a story, and he interacted with them in a dynamic yet natural way, rarely turning his back on the audience. Jobs used the huge backlit screen behind him in the same spirit that a filmmaker uses the screen: to help tell a story. A filmmaker uses actors, visuals, and effects to convey his message. Jobs used visuals and his own words and natural presence to tell his story. Jobs’s slides always flowed smoothly with his talk.

In Bill Gates’s case, however, the slides were often not only of low aesthetic quality, they simply did not really help his narrative. Gates’s slides were often not entirely necessary; they were more of an ornament or a decoration off to the side. You don’t have to use slideware for every presentation, but if you do, the visuals should seem a part of the show, not something “over there” off to the side.

I have always admired Bill Gates for his work with education and the great work his foundation does today. But when it came to his public keynote presentations in his Microsoft days—and the visuals that accompanied those talks—there was much he could have learned about “presenting differently” from Steve Jobs. Gates’s keynotes were not terrible; they were just very average and unremarkable. His PowerPoint-driven style was normal and typical, and his presentations were largely forgettable as a result. Bill Gates is a remarkable man; his presentations should be remarkable too. Happily, he does think differently about his presentation visuals today, and his presentations are better as a result.

The moral of the story for the rest of us is this: If you are going to get up in front of a lot of people and say the design of your strategy matters or the design of your integrated software matters, then at the very least the visuals you use—right here and right now, at this moment, with this particular audience—also need to be the result of thoughtful design, not hurried decoration.

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/iStockphoto.com

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