We often find simplicity attractive. And yet we’re not quite sure why. Simplicity just seems naturally and immediately ‘nice’. This vagueness is understandable, but it means we have a dangerously weak hold on an important element of our satisfaction.
We often find simplicity attractive. And yet we’re not quite sure why. Simplicity just seems naturally and immediately ‘nice’. This vagueness is understandable, but it means we have a dangerously weak hold on an important element of our satisfaction. We want to get clearer about exactly why simplicity is nice and, therefore, want to track some of its most memorable examples in daily life; taking them apart to work out why simplicity should often prove so exciting, reassuring and plain moving. By knowing why simplicity is nice, we’ll get better at ensuring that it has a more active role in our lives. What follows is a short diagnostic of simplicity:
These pieces of crockery weren’t in any way expensive. But they are perfectly suited to their tasks. We wouldn’t want anything more for the evening’s soup and breakfast’s berries. Gold rims, flowers or elaborate motifs are superfluous. The crockery reminds us that we don’t need anything more which explains why these pieces are so reassuring: they are reminders of our capacity for modesty. It can too often seem as though only luxury and elaboration will satisfy us. But at root, most of our needs are pretty down to earth. The best simple objects remind us of this. They return us to a more basic sense of self we too often lose sight of. They soothe us with the idea that we have not drifted away from what is essential. The pleasingly white crockery is quietly teaching us a little lesson about contentment.
Stimulation, new ideas, dazzling information, bold plans – these used to be what we were short of. Now we are all drowning in them, they have become the enemy and we are rediscovering an intense longing for escape and calm. The blanket’s design is simple in the extreme, a repetition of an identical herringbone pattern, grey against cream, all across its expanse. Such a simple design might at one point, for some, have seemed ‘boring’. But nowadays, in the era of over-stimulation, it tends to come across as deeply gratifying. We need simplicity all around us as we’ve never done before, in order to be able to hear the important things inside us, the things you hear at night, once the roar of the city has subsided. Simple objects give us room to talk with the most important person we know, someone with whom we nevertheless rarely dialogue properly: ourselves.
We like simplicity because of the state of mind we can get into around it. When there’s less clutter and confusion, the mind can move freely. Simplicity is an antidote to distraction – and distraction is almost at the top of the list of things that undermine us now. When things are simple, you can give each thing the attention it needs – your brain’s not jumping from thought to thought. Monasteries were the West’s first large-scale deliberately ‘simple’ institutions, decorated with minimal clutter so as to keep the monks’ minds on important things. We may not now be looking to focus on God, but the priority of focusing on something remains. We may rightly long for secular equivalents to the monk’s room: bare places where the important things can emerge and be accorded the time they need.
Benno Wissing was a Dutch designer responsible for the exceptionally simple signs that guide you around one of the world’s largest and most potentially frightening airports, Schipol in Amsterdam. We may not normally think of it in this way, but one of the things that simple designs are is kind to us. They are kind in relation to our tendencies to get confused, flustered and lost. When it comes to simple designs, behind the scenes someone has thought a lot about our needs. They’ve realised we might get in a temper or a panic. So they’ve worked out how to make help easy. They’ve stripped complexity back so as only to give us what is really useful. Like a very good teacher, they know that when we’re finding something difficult we can only take in a little at a time: the simple object knows we don’t need to know everything, only what will help us accomplish our goals. That’s an epitome of kindness.
It’s a nice idea we constantly forget: a small number of good things will satisfy us far more than a lot of low-grade stuff. We often get (to be frank) a bit greedy because we’re not quite getting what we want: our over-eating is a symptom of not properly quenching our needs. Simplicity means hitting the target. When you get the right things, you don’t have to take too much. The sight of a simple, very attractive thing – a fig for example – is a moment of hope. It suggests a bigger ideal. It’s not just lunch that could be like this. It hints at how good life could be, with more simplicity in it. We’d get more happiness out of fewer things: because they’d be the right ones.
When something is simple and appealing, we get a reassuring combination, which shows that nice things – like a perfectly crisp toasted sandwich – need not be hard or expensive to get. You don’t have to go to a lot of trouble, it’s not going to break the bank, it’s not going to take ages. It’s easing us away from the anxious tendency to suppose that the best things are rare, expensive and tricky. Simplicity doesn’t require being austere and missing out. When we get more attuned to simplicity, it’s reassuring because we realise that we are going to be able to get the things we need without wasting our lives. A hugely comforting realisation is embedded in simple food (and other examples): I (that so maddeningly complex and demanding character in so many areas) can at the same time be happy with just this.
Children are good at it. Something we’ve totally lost interest in – a puddle, a pencil, how a zip works – can be hugely fascinating to them. They’re good at appreciation. A simple thing becomes so interesting because kids give it enough space and attention. They are mini-artists of the everyday world, seeing value where adults have long ceased (to their great cost) to look. Cézanne was like this about apples: devoted to looking carefully at simple things we tend to bypass for supposedly more exciting ones. We should all be like artists of puddles, pencils, zips and apples, not in the sense of making art out of them, but in the sense of looking at them with the care inherent in the artist’s eye.
It’s a hopeful thought: when we appreciate simple things, we’re liberated from always having to chase after more and more: we get more out of what’s already around. An apple could be enough.
We’re frequently invited to make a link between having a good time and being a bit raucous: everyone’s laughing, drinking champagne, people are crowding onto the dance floor. And it leads us to fear that simplicity is a touch dull. Yet simpler social pleasures like going for a walk, or having a cup of tea with a friend, though quieter and more temperate, are no less real. It’s just that, at the moment, they are short on glamour. Glamour is a cultural spotlight (often directed by advertising) that lets us know a lot of other people like something.
In the past, artists – like the 18th-century French painter Chardin – have been keen to stress the attractions of simple pleasures (like drinking tea). We need an updated version of these glamour spotlight-controllers to rebalance our lopsided culture.
In the 1850s, the American writer Henry David Thoreau went to live for a while in a simple cabin, in the woods, near a lake. It was a very charming – very simple – place. But it took courage to do this. It wasn’t how people like him (he’d graduated from Harvard) were expected to live. He knew his friends from college were splashing out on special riding equipment and collecting French porcelain – two glamorous interests of the time – and he understood they would not be impressed. In part, we get complicated because we’re awkward about our beliefs and unsure of ourselves. When we say we’d love a simple life, part of what we’re saying is we’d like to be confident enough to have a simple life, confident not to mind the sarcasm and judgements of others. Simplicity is the opposite of pretension, where we must pretend we are more than we are in order to please others; here we can take the risk of being very minimal, sure that we don’t need the approval of the crowd.
Four: Relationships FIDELITY
It is moving to see people in love, who are content just to be together on a park bench, sharing a sandwich and sparing a bit of crust for a quizzical duck. There’s a lovely simplicity in their focus on each other: just to hold the other person’s hand seems like the most precious luxury the world has to offer. We’re moved because they are a touching corrective to our sense of priorities. We’d been telling ourselves we need a skiing trip or a phone upgrade but they’re sending a very different, simpler message: what we’d really like is to be with the right person.
Daphnis has just spent the night with Chloe. A passing prince might offer him the world. He’d politely say no. He has enough: he has someone he loves. Simplicity is one of the unintended consequences of love: loneliness is the catalyst of boundless consumption.
It’s a painful fact: in our big emotional relationships, we have a fatal tendency to over- complicate. We go round in circles: ‘you said, then I said, but I meant…’ Resentment keeps simmering just below the surface. We sulk and say through gritted teeth that nothing’s the matter. We feel misunderstood. We fear our partner is hiding something. We wish relationships could be… simpler. What simplicity generally boils down to is clear communication: being able to say – without getting worked up or vindictive – this is what’s going on for me. And being able to listen to our partners without getting on the defensive or rushing to justify ourselves. Simple, clear communication is a very important goal around another person. It’s difficult because we spend so much of our lives not daring to express what we really feel. Feeling truly loved should give us the courage – at last – to speak simply about our needs, however odd or extreme they might sound.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad They may not mean to but they do They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you – Philip Larkin
Some of the great writers win a place in our hearts because they say so clearly and simply things that we’ve half-felt or half-thought but not quite managed to pin down. They express our own thoughts, with a clarity we couldn’t muster. In the words of Emerson: in the minds of geniuses, we find our own neglected thoughts. We are authentic when we are in touch with what we truly feel and say honestly how we see things. Not to upset other people, but with the confidence that probably other people’s experience isn’t so different from our own. You don’t have to edge around a topic, or make it complicated to show how clever you are. Simplicity takes us straight to the point. There’s a lovely simplicity that comes when a person is sure of who they are. And one of the reasons simplicity is so appealing to us is that it signals a very attractive mixture of assurance and modesty. I don’t have to make a song and dance about it; I don’t have to be over-assertive: I can just quietly, but firmly, say my piece.
There are great players – Wayne Rooney is one of them – who impress us by how little they seem to do. They’re not remotely slackers and shirkers, but they’re not constantly running about or agitating. They are just always there at the right place at the right time. There’s a beautiful economy in their action, which we might call grace. It’s moving because we’re so unfortunately familiar with the reverse: ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’, ‘all haste and no work’. The phrases are protests against a failure of simplicity. We wouldn’t necessarily think of it, but simplicity is one of the big ideals of work. We are happy to make a big effort; but we want our effort to have the right productive focus, to bring the maximum effect. We need more Wayne Rooneys of the conference room.
VICTORY OVER COMPLEXITY
When hi-fi systems were new they were very complicated. To get high quality sound was a big challenge and the systems were a mess of cables, dials and knobs. The brilliant German designer Dieter Rams worked out how to simplify it all. The result looked so obvious. It was intuitive, clean and straightforward. That’s not because the problem was easy. It was the outcome of immense labour. It’s all strangely counterintuitive: what ends up simple to use was almost never simple to make. You struggle and strive and experiment and revise and you end up with something that looks like anyone could have done it in five minutes.
At school, we start simple and get complex; we learn to add and multiply before we learn to calculate the circumference of a circle. But so often we actually need to go in the opposite direction. We are forced to start with complicated issues and work out how to simplify them.
Simplicity is the sign of mastery. You’ve not avoided the difficulties, you’ve solved them. And then everything falls neatly (and with apparent ease) into place. True work, we might say, is making the simple feel easy.
The people-pleaser is an interesting type. They tell you what they think you want to hear, not how things really are.
Winston Churchill was the opposite. He had the simplicity to say what he knew to be true. At the moment of maximum anxiety he didn’t try to buck people up with unreal hope; he put it bluntly, but with deep compassion: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat and tears…’ People didn’t hate him for telling the truth; they hugely appreciated his candour.
Simple directness isn’t only for moments of national emergency. On a lesser, but practically important, scale it’s a crucial office virtue. Work often involves having to pass on information that’s not going to be entirely welcome, but that needs to be heard.
PURPOSE – MISSION
There’s something alluring about maps and ships’ cabins (and swiss army knives and picnic hampers and old corkscrews). They have a very clear idea of what they are for. And this core purpose overrides everything, so every detail slots into service of that task. And the result is simplicity. It’s the simplicity that comes from knowing exactly what you are about and sticking precisely to that. When you know what you need, you can be selective.
We’re discovering the big meaning of simplicity in our lives. In the past, there were times when no one wanted simplicity. Few people had enough, stimulation was in short supply, dull routine was the norm. Simplicity could look like deprivation, boredom or lack of opportunity. Now it’s so different. We’ve got too much to do, we’re constantly assailed by demands and offers, we’re brought up against too much complexity all the time. We’re realising we positively need simplicity: it’s a guide to a better life. Simplicity is in short supply. We need a lot more of it.