Simplicity. As a concept, an idea, or an aesthetic, it connotes ease of use, elegance, efficiency, and flow. We like to think of ourselves as creatures that crave, appreciate, and enjoy simple things. But human beings are anything but simple; as semiotic forms of expression, our simple things (and the relationships we have with them) tell a very complicated story.
Simple Is as Simple Does
We like to surround ourselves with simple things. The exquisite design of an apple computer, the elegant flow of an IKEA POÄNG chair, the sleek utility of an Umbra teakettle—these are the things we use as evidence, mirrors of our own inner simple natures. But what are we really reflecting?
The iPhone is indeed a masterpiece of minimalist design, but the infinite number of features available through the touch of its screen is mind-blowing. The simple chair from IKEA is attractive, but assembling it at home is another story—not to mention the labyrinthine supply and distribution chain that ensures that the identical chair, made out of identical material, exists in an identical setting across the globe.
Beyond design and devices, entire civilizations rest on powerful foundations of supposedly simple truths, like justice, peace, honor, liberty, and equality. These elemental ideas form the bedrocks of social, political, economic, and religious institutions, yet subtle differences in the interpretation of what they mean have been the cause of confusion, conflict, and destruction since their inception.
We may like to think of ourselves as simple creatures, but the truth is that we prefer car interiors that look like cockpits and refrigerators with operating systems. When given a choice between two devices, we will always choose the one with more features, and the simple truths underlying human civilization are a source of perpetual, existential, and violent complexity.
Simplicity: The Myth Today
What if simplicity is just a myth? A story we tell ourselves about ourselves through our devices, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the way we decorate our homes that serves to hide the fact that we are confusing (and confused) creatures living in an infinitely complex social and physical universe?
According to French cultural critic Roland Barthes, human beings rely on myth; it’s how we communicate and understand ourselves. Writing in post-war 1950s France, Barthes was interested in the birth of mass culture. He noticed that the stories we shared were no longer religious, political, or just local. Instead, innovations in the production and distribution of images and text (think radio, television, cinema, etc.) meant that a common set of ideas and images were suddenly being consumed by vastly different types of people across the globe.
Barthes explained that the lessons and rules for life once imparted by gods through the stories of holy books are now delivered through storytelling of a different sort: Celebrity, consumer, and popular culture are now the sites through which we come to share social values and develop common languages and ways of understanding the world around us. In other words, the stories we tell and receive through popular culture are the myths we use to make sense of the world, as well as to understand our relationships with each other and our place within in it.
According to Barthes, myth works as a system of meaning; what we understand as common sense is constructed within this system. In other words, within the system of mythic expression, objects, images, and texts have a particular significance that seems obvious and natural. The rose, for example, signifies love. Yet these meanings are not natural or inherent: They are culturally constructed. In and of itself, the Nike swoosh is just a sideways check mark. Mickey is just a mouse. The twin towers are just a couple of office buildings, and the rose is just a flower. But as part of the social fabric of Western culture, these images communicate rich mythological meanings that transcend the dimensions of their physical appearance and are understood and taken for granted as common sense.
Barthes believed that the taken-for-granted assumptions generated by myth (e.g. Apple is elegant, IKEA is practical, hoodies are gangster, or green is sustainable) work by pretending that complex things are simple. Myth erases all the particular, difficult, and nit-picky historical, political, cultural, and economic details and replaces them with easier, more appealing versions that become understood as reality.
The Simple Truth
So, where does this leave us? From Muji to Maeda, and from poured concrete floors to Helvetica font, the semiotics of simplicity have invaded all aspects of daily life. But perhaps Barthes is right—perhaps the myth of simplicity crafted in the images and texts of consumer and popular culture masks another, simpler truth: That we are complex, confusion-loving, conundrum-seeking beings who crave disjuncture, difference, contradiction, and difficulty. For better or worse, it’s how we grow, evolve, challenge, and change. Whether it’s wishful thinking or willful denial, the myth of simplicity elegantly obscures two difficult facts: Humans are messy, and complexity is king.