Chapter 07.

Navigating Complexity


Humans long for simplicity. It’s in our DNA to desire our surroundings to be accessible and understandable. And yet often our own complexities get in the way of this noble aspiration.

This drive for simplicity also reveals our tendency toward nostalgia. We become sentimental about the past because times seemed simpler “back then.” This can lead us to believe in false memories rather than accepting that our memories are quite malleable. We know, deep down, that times weren’t simpler, like our retelling of them would suggest, and yet we cling to this reassuring sentimentality in our lives.

And as designers, we mold this kind of perception. We long to create simplicity out of the confusion that surrounds us. The truth is that many facets of our natural world are quite complex. Our own anatomies illustrate that we are an intricate amalgam of perplexing systems. How do we make sense of it all?

As designers we are also translators. We translate complexity into clear communication. Though we can characterize a lot of our work as simplification, often what we are doing is clarifying rather than reducing.

There are countless metaphors for the role of the designers. Grasping for the right one shows that even defining our practice can be quite complicated. However it’s in navigating this intricacy that we embody a pivotal role for a designer: guide.

Friction and tension

Complexity is daunting. The more complicated something is, the more anxiety it produces. In the very beginning of this book, I mentioned the tension between our clients and their users. It would almost be easier if it were a simple highwire act; however, as guides, we become experts navigating this complex balance.

Some designers shy away from tension. Concepts like tension and friction are often discussed pejoratively in our discipline. We see their presence as something that must be eradicated. We believe in fallacies like, “Good design is easy,” and “Good design must be intuitive.” The truth is that design can be easy and intuitive, but these aren’t always requirements for hopeful design.

I often wonder about the idealistic world we design in our heads. These tantalizing illusions aren’t just problems isolated to designers; they influence our entire culture. Progress has made us all anxiously await the days when everything will be simple. What we fail to pause and ask, “What happens when everything is easy?”

In a world with no tension or friction, what has value or meaning? This isn’t purely a rhetorical exercise. It speaks to the worth of navigating complexity well. Something that’s simple doesn’t always mean that it’s also easy. Some of the most simplistic principles are the most difficult to embody.

The natural world exists and thrives because of the physical properties of friction and tension. Don’t believe me? Trying wearing bowling shoes on an ice rink or hanging wet clothes on a Slinky. Physics is necessary to our existence. It doesn’t just govern our physical world but our social lives as well. Intimacy even relies on these elements. Though counterintuitive, real community is formed around the tension that vulnerability brings to relationships.

Not everything should be easy and some things won’t be intuitive. While these statements are true, we can still embrace simplicity while acknowledging the need for necessary friction.

I’ve found that the designers that I most admire don’t shy away from these realities. They flourish in them. There’s wisdom in being able to walk confidently into the convoluted grayness that forms between our clients and their audiences. While guides are often unnecessary to navigate well-trodden trails, they are quite comfortable in the wilderness.

The ever moving and changing current of design can also be hard to navigate. We’re in an age where our work can be viewed by anyone with a screen. And the amount of inspiration fueling our creativity is seemingly infinite. Naturally, this continuous melding of ideas begins to form trends.

The word “trend” has a couple of definitions. The first commonly used meaning is tied to aesthetics or fashion—something timely that’s in favor. The second definition, however, describes a flow or current. It’s directional and moves forward. We can look back in design’s history to see this trend meandering through new landscapes.

Sometimes this flow is headed in the right direction. It’s easy to identify that it’s progressing toward a desirable outcome. I think of the renewed emphasis on privacy that is taking place in the technology space. Advocating for users’ privacy seems to be a trend headed in the right direction. But this isn’t always the case. There are times when the pushing current has more momentum than substance. It’s like this in our practice: Before we take a blind plunge into the rushing waters, we must evaluate their course.

We have to remember that only time evaluates trends. Wisdom looks like being able to pull from past experience to determine whether the current is moving toward a collective good. Trends tend to happen in cycles naturally. Once we’ve experienced a cycle or two, we’ll have more confidence which trends we should move with and which ones we should move against.

Becoming guides

Two of the most formational summers of my life to date were spent guiding rafts down the New River Gorge in West Virginia. Regardless of its clever name, the New River is an incredibly old river. It has meandered its way through some rugged, alpine terrain. This creates not only some adrenaline-spiking whitewater but also presents its fair share of dangerous complications.

Training was terrifying. Navigating the current’s intricacies felt impossible. But when I took the river one rapid at a time, spent countless hours studying it, and trusted the current, it suddenly didn’t feel so treacherous. Simplicity could be created even within the chaos of nature.

I never thought my seasons on the water would influence how I thought about design. Perhaps its lessons are still settling into my practice. What I’ve found is that the principles I learned in that time aren’t all that different from the natural flow we navigate in design. I learned that to the clients I work with, design challenges seem like navigating rushing whitewater on a raft. The landscape is too complex and the solutions seem too shrouded in the possibility of failure. And yet clients only need someone who can take on the challenge one aspect at a time.

Navigation requires familiarity. It’s only through time spent within an ecosystem that you can truly understand its intricacies. It doesn’t always mean you have to know the exact map, but you’ve been through topography like this before. Things don’t feel completely new. Our familiarity with the complexities of design is what helps us communicate simply to our clients and, in turn, to their users. It’s in time spent staring at the challenge that we form simple solutions. Once we see where feet are treading we can start to form a path that adapts to humans in their environments. I always loved seeing this process take shape on my college campus. A well-trodden footpath blazed from thousands of steps would eventually kill the grass. The next year, that path would become a sidewalk. This was a process that responded to the humans who would go on to use its solutions.

These natural paths form all around us. It simply takes time and energy to discover them. I can often feel defeated when I can’t seem to figure out a solution to a challenging problem. It usually takes the eyes of another person (often a non-designer) to say, “Shouldn’t you just _______?” The other maddening aspect of innovation is often that insight happens once your work is living in the wild. As long as we’re human, we are going to miss something the first time. But in this weakness comes an incredible design principle: iteration.

Try, try again

Design is meant to be iterative. Our lives are in constant flux, and even the most mundane aspects of our lives tend to change over time. This means our needs as humans will also change. Designing for humans can feel like chasing after a moving target with a bow and arrow because that’s what we’re doing.

It’s nearly impossible to form a solution that will last forever. I don’t think anything we create was meant to last forever. Our work’s stagnation quickly becomes a disservice to those using it. We must iterate upon our design for it to truly serve the people who will benefit from it. This requires a great deal of time and energy. It requires talking to real people in real places, which isn’t very efficient by our cultural standards. It also requires an immense amount of humility to constantly put our own work under the microscope. But at the end of the day, it’s not about us. It’s about them.

It seems like the world would be so much easier if we could just set our design into motion and stop tinkering with things.

But there we go again.

Why does it need to be easy? It can be so tempting to fall for this train of thought. Let’s be honest: It’s just laziness. Frustrations with others and their needs is poor self-reflection on our part. I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful someone is iterating on our behalf, constantly searching for simplicity for my good. So, again we prove the golden rule for design. Though we aren’t always our own users, shouldn’t we compassionately design the things we’d want to consume? Now I think we’re onto something.

Creating clarity

Creating simplicity from chaos is toilsome work. However, through its challenges we find the reward of solving real issues. Experiencing complexity builds empathy through perspective. We mustn’t project complexity onto our processes but rather discover it within ecosystems. This is where we will start to create real clarity.

• • •

Practice

07. Iterate & repeat.

Exercise humility. Continually come back to the reality that you may not get it right the first time. Rather than allowing this truth to defeat you, use it to empower your design.