“Simplicity is not the absence of clutter, that’s a consequence of simplicity. Simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product. The absence of clutter is just a clutter-free product. That’s not simple.

The quest for simplicity has to pervade every part of the process. It really is fundamental.”

Jonathan Ive

Imagine a rustic writing desk with a sleek silver laptop from Silicon Valley on top and a steaming cup of coffee on the side. Does an appealing picture form in your mind? It does for me. Since long I have noticed that I am most vulnerable to this kind of imagery in advertising. I wonder why this is so.

Firstly, when I try to analyze my reaction, I can’t ignore a certain disconnect between my thoughts and my emotions. I know that the implied promise of unleashed productivity in a simple rustic environment is false. Lacking inspiration is no less painful in front of a rustic desk than it is in a cubicle. Neither the desk nor the shiny gadget are creating any inspiration either. Still, my gut feeling tells me that in front of such a desk my life will be more productive and inspired.

I think that whenever we meet such a disconnect between our brain and our emotions we are given a clue that our deep and non-verbalized beliefs and values are at work. At the same time, if we follow the ideal of rustic simplicity through the times from the Stoics, to St. Francis to Rikyu and wabi-sabi, we notice that the ideal most easily seems to pop-up during troubled times. Whenever the world seems overly complex and unpleasant the dream of a simpler and truer life awakens.

Apple’s design language of refined simplicity that now is so influential in all product design can be traced back to Steven Job’s fondness for the Bauhaus and Zen-ideas like wabi-sabi. While individually they might have been a response to Job’s own troubled history, culturally the designs coincided with the exploding complexity of a technical, networked, global culture. In fact, Apple’s marketing message has been from the start that it’s products empower us by hiding the underlying complexity of the technology.

I also think we see strong cultural and political movements answering to the craving for a more simple reality. While they spring from different sources and have little else in common, populism, nationalism, radical Islamism, and minimalist lifestyle all seem through different mechanisms to offer return to a simpler, less complex world.

Also in art we see that through the centuries more complex, decorative styles and more austere, simpler styles follow and react to each other. Where then lies the truth: in complexity or simplicity? I think, and always believed, that they are not opposites but closely interwoven aspects of reality. All the complexity of the physical world can be traced back to a simple set of four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear force). That doesn’t make either more real than the other, instead they balance each other.

And I think that is what our emotional yearning for simplicity is (or should be) about: to root ourself in a unifying simplicity to act out in a complex world. But like all good things in life, like loving relationships, meaning and happiness, simplicity cannot be harvested from the surface of existence. Buying rustic desks and sleek gadgets, closing borders, populist “we first” thinking or doomed attempts to re-create Muhammad’s 6th century don’t reduce complexity; in fact such attempts tend to increase complexity as they clash with reality. Simplicity can only be harvested from within, through hard work, engagement and insight.

In art and design superficial simplicity is simply boring (imagine a picture of just a white wall and you know what I mean). Simplicity in art means showing the essence of things and reality. Achieving that is very hard. Even harder seems to me to artistically embrace the diversity and complexity of the world and to complement it with this visual and emotional core of simplicty. But this time both my brain and my feeling agree: it is the ultimate goal worth striving for.