Brutal Simplicity of Thought

02 April 2014

"If you want your work to achieve the impossible, you will need 'Brutal Simplicity of Thought'."

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So goes the philosophy promoted by the creative agency M&C Saatchi. Neither you nor I may be convinced that the medium of advertising enables us to "achieve the impossible", but it certainly rings true that the simpler the idea, the easier it is to digest by the human mind.

Nowadays we are faced with an abundance of choice. It goes without saying that such choice can often be a positive and almost empowering thing, enabling consumers to cherry-pick the exact item they want rather than being confined to whatever the status quo dictates. In many areas this also encourages manufacturers, retailers and businesses to strive to make themselves better – it is not possible to rest upon proverbial laurels in these testing, consumer-led times. Consider BlackBerry, a once desirable product which has fallen out of favour because its competitors have left it behind.

However, this abundance of choice can also lead us to needlessly over-complicate the simplest of matters (and often it is over the choice that matters least where we dither the most). We are no longer content to go into a café and choose between tea and coffee; to pop into our local corner shop and pick up full-fat or semi-skimmed milk. Now, when we go into a café, no one would look at us blankly if we asked for a matcha latte and we fully expect to be able to buy three different kinds of soy milk in our local corner shop. Don't even get me started on which Yoga class you ought to go to… We have become so familiar with the cognitive minefield of variety that is available to us in our everyday lives that it is often difficult to distinguish between what the important and the unimportant decisions actually are. It has become easier to complicate than to simplify.

This current trend does not necessarily make good business sense, and neither might this abundance of choice be sustainable by businesses in the long-term. Having too many things to choose from muddles the brain and ultimately ends with us feeling dissatisfied and uncertain that we've made the "perfect" choice. Saatchi posits (and I am inclined to agree): "Simple ideas enter the brain quicker and stay there longer. Brutal simplicity of thought is therefore a painful necessity." Our cluttered brains need a filtration mechanism.

Einstein famously stated: "If you can't explain it to a six year old, then you don't understand it yourself." This is a good starting point. Moving forward with an idea, simplistic thought can be divided into two categories: first working out what needs to be simplified and then presenting that thought in a simplified manner. Both tools are invaluable in the business world, specifically in the legal sector. Of course it is not about the thoughts themselves being simple, but rather the breakdown of an idea into a format that is easy to compute by the desired audience. Further, the most precisely delivered thoughts will be understood far wider than their intended recipient, such as internationally or cross-culturally.

In what started life as a training manual for Saatchi employees, the (online and good old fashioned) book by the corporate advertising giant is now used as a platform to discuss the wider implications of pure thinking. In order to succeed in this simplistic expression of thought: "you will need a deep distaste for waffle, vagueness, platitudes and flim flam – a strong preference to get to the point." Something to which we would all surely strive, but perhaps few can claim to have mastered.

Saatchi gives examples from industry legends, such as the creation of the Heinz horseradish sauce packaging (a glass bottle which acts as a "window into freshness" and allows the consumer to fully inspect the ingredients) and the invention of the paper bag (allowing a consumer to purchase more than he can carry in his hands). Both are cited as examples of when simplistic design and thought process prevailed and an increase in company profits ensued.

Take the humble zip, modest by modern technological standards but transformative for the textile industry. Patented in 1851 by Elias Howe as an "automatic, continuous clothing closure", it wasn't until the 1930s that the zip was embraced commercially by the fashion industry. Although seemingly ahead of its times, it was nevertheless a simple idea (to fasten two pieces of material) that has now infiltrated the modern wardrobe: a simple idea dispersed globally.

Businesses these days can get caught up in their own grandeur and self-perpetuating desire to deliver the "latest thing" or the "newest model". Do we really want our smart phone to be updated to the latest model for the sake of cutting edge technology, or rather would we prefer the provider to take a step back and consider the simplistic technology that makes our lives easier? Businesses should do more, work harder and refine ideas again and again, as these actions will ultimately enable their customers to do less. That is simplicity in action.

I am not suggesting that simplicity is easy. Quite the opposite. As put by Saatchi, "Simplicity is more than a discipline; it is a test. It forces exactitude or it annihilates. It accelerates failure when a cause is weak and strengthens a cause that is strong." At the risk of annihilation, so I will end here.

Rachel Griffiths

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