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255. The Difference Between Simple and Easy.

Sometimes words make a big difference. A word carries with it the baggage accumulated throughout history along with the modern context in which it is used. Paula Scher touched on this during a recent TED Conference speech (bottom) where she talked about her best work being serious but not solemn. Meaning: we should be doing something important but we can also have fun while doing it. It’s a great talk and well worth watching. But I’ve noticed two other words that are often used as synonyms but — in terms of communication design — they could not be more different.

Simple. Easy.

Looks these words up in a thesaurus and they’re often the first entry you get for each other. But they’re really not synonyms. Let me clarify.

Putting a ball through a hoop is simple. As in: I understand the task (putting the ball through the hoop) and I understand what I need to do in order to accomplish it (ie: the ball must go up and through the hoop.) However simple putting a ball through a hoop may be – it’s not easy. People are paid lots of money because they are good at something that is anything but easy. And even the best basketball players in the world only ‘put the ball through the hoop’ at a 40 – 45% rate during a game. It’s simple. But it’s not easy.

When mentoring design students I often push them to come to a simple solution. But I have to explain to them what I mean, as simple has come to mean something that is easy in a classroom setting in particular, when oftentimes it requires the most work. Simple may look easy but it’s usually very difficult. I don’t want the students to take the easy way out — to just slap something together. On the contrary, what I want them to find or discover is the most elegant solution. The ‘simple’ solution. This takes a lot of searching, digging, thinking, questioning, and long long days. The way this word simple is used today doesn't help. Everyone has heard the phrase: Keep it simple, stupid and it's used in a way that means, "Okay, let's not try anything crazy here, or ruffle any feathers; let's just stick to the basics." This may work well when obeying is a key responsibility of your job, but not when you are paid to think. And designers, good designers, are paid to think.

I love work that is simple. But I hate work that is easy. The advertisement below illustrates this point clearly. It’s simple. But was not an easy thing to pull off.

A bus made out of 50 cars outside the Stockholm airport was erected by Acne Advertising for Swedish airport bus company Flygbussarn to illustrate the point that a bus can transport 50 cars worth of people while producing only 4 cars worth of pollution. It’s a concise presentation of basic math. But producing this piece was definitively not the easy solution. (The easy solution would have been to put up an ordinary billboard that says, “Taking the bus can save 50 cars worth of carbon pollution.’ Or something like that.) We see many such easy creative solutions everyday driving down the road. Heck, we've all been guilty of producing easy work from time to time because it is soooo... well, easy. Easy is often overlooked. But simple can be downright captivating.

The problem in coming up with simple ideas is that because they often require a different point of view or a lot of elbow grease in getting them done. They usually face a lot of resistance. The challenge for creatives that aspire towards simplicity is to figure out a way to get past the obstacles of the status quo and make stuff happen. Simple stuff. Beautiful stuff. Captivating stuff. Anything but easy stuff.

A few images of the busboard:

Below is a video that explains this simple billboard:

Here's Paula Scher on serious vs solemn:

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention John Maeda in an article about Simplicity. (See his book, The Laws of Simplicity, on the mandatory reads list on the right.)

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Reader Comments (3)

This is a fantastic article. I am always trying to explain to non-designers that something they think looks simple and easy is not always easy. Simple takes time and thought and hard work.

I will definitely be linking to this article in my next blog post. Thanks and great work!
May 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie
Ironicially, you probably just over-complicated the concepts.

Switch the words around in this article, and read again... I think the result would be interesting.
May 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSameer
Perhaps. Perhaps you missed the point though. There is a difference between something that is easy to do and something that embraces simplicity. Easy focuses on the process - whether there are many obstacles to complete a task. Simple focuses on the result. Does it look complicated? Are the many elements? But of course, I'm speaking in terms of design.
May 29, 2009 | Registered Commenterjj

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