Cameron Tonkinwise | Philosopher & Design Educator

A violin is a fairly simple device: four strings suspended over a wooden box that amplifies the vibrations of the strings as they are bowed. A violin is not, however, a simple device to play well. It is complex and difficult to bow the strings in just the right way to make the strings sing; to hold down the strings with your fingers at precise points so that an exact pitch is vibrated from the strings; and then to coordinate your fingers as your bow leaps from one string to another to make a striking melody. If you practice, religiously, for hours and hours over years and years, playing the violin will become simpler for you. You will be able to play it in ways that make it look simple. That simplicity is actually the manifestation of how you are now ‘in sync’ or ‘at home’ with the violin; the violin has become an extension of your body, a prosthetic incorporated into your very way of being. In the same way that you can bring a glass full of liquid close to you by merely extending your arm and grasping it with your hand, without thinking about it – even while thinking about something else, sustaining a conversation for example – so a well-trained violinist can now make music, even improvise new music rather than just reproduced pieces already composed, merely by intending to do so. If the violin is simple, playing it is not, but it can become simpler for some people with practice.

Simplicity is the effect of humans and things fusing together. Such simplicity is the outcome of extended effort at making the human body and mind conform to the constraints of some product and its machinations, and vice versa. Only after a protracted process of socio-technical evolution do simple interactions become possible.

You cannot simply design something to be simple to use. You cannot do this firstly because such simplicity is a quality of what happens between people and things, rather than a property of things alone. If there are simple things, those must be things that do not do anything, that are not useful. Secondly, you cannot simply design simply useful things because pairing people and things in new ways involves a lot of learning; learning about people and their everyday practices; learning about products and how their forms can direct people to use them effectively; and then learning by people over extended periods of time how to use those products in habitual ways. Thirdly, even when all that learning has successfully fused people with products into seemingly simple interactions, it will have done so only for certain kinds of people in specific times and places. Simplicity is never universal; it is always culturally specific.

Take the disposable razor blade. This is a seemingly simple device for the everyday activity of shaving. Its key original innovation was that it located a thin, sharp blade close to a guardrail. As a user drags the razor across his face, the blade is kept at just the right distance away from the skin all the time, even around all the contours of the face. This is why the razor blade was originally marketed as a ‘safety razor,’ as opposed to the cut-throat razor which required great skill to operate without causing nicks. The disposable razor blade was quickly a successful innovation, with large populations incorporating this simple way of shaving into their daily habits.

Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that people still had to learn this new, even if afterward simpler, practice. By contrast, it is still simpler from a certain point of view to go to a professional barber for a shave. And learning to make the disposable razor blade part of your everyday routine, was not just a matter of acquiring new skills. It was also a shift in cultural values: it meant foregoing the tradition of using a long-lasting, cut-throat razor, probably gifted to you from a father-figure, for instance. All this should make clear that the razor blades, when simple parts of everyday life, are so only for men (women’s razors apparently must look and function quite differently), and only for men who normalize being clean shaven (compare with middle-eastern cultures for example).

And, as those of us who live a century later, drowning in waste consumer products, realize, the safety razor was only simple after we learned to ignore complicated issues of disposability. King C Gillette found that a finely manufactured thin blade capable of sitting close to the guardrail could either be durable but expensive, or cheap but quickly dulling in sharpness. Gillette originally sold sharpening services because that is what customers expected. It took time for them, for us, to learn to think of disposability as an acceptably simple practice. Once we did, we came to expect it of too many things.

There is then no simply simple thing. What is simple is so only because the cultures and systems that allow it to seem simple are ignored.

Designers should therefore stop fetishizing the simple. There are two lessons to be learned:

1) The stories that expert designers should be telling each other should rather be about all the complexity surrounding any design; they should be celebrating how long it took for a design to come to be incorporated into people’s lives as seemingly simple.

2) If what seems simple conceals complexity, then what seems complex could, by comprehensive design, over time, come to be simple for certain populations of people in certain places and times. The job of designers is not to strive for simplicity, but to help, and even make, people want to work at making much-needed practices simpler parts of how they live and work. For instance, designers need to be working hard and long at getting groups of people to find living with fewer, if any, disposable goods, the key to a simpler life. Designers need to show that wasting less by maintaining fewer, long-lasting products, feels like virtuosic violin playing, allowing you to be free to create rich experiences for and with others.

This is an excerpt from Ligature Journal Issue Five.
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