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Speaking at the 2007 IA Summit — 'Design Plectics'

This isn't exactly news in the sense that it's new, but I haven't mentioned it here yet (nor, really, talked about it much with any of my colleagues.) But I've had a talk accepted for the 2007 IA Summit in Vegas, and the subject is something near and dear to my heart: simplicity & complexity.

I've been off my feet all day with an ugly head-cold and I feel like writing something tonight.. so here it is. Until my Nyquil tablets kick in. (Expect an abrupt end to this entry.)

My talk is entitled Design Plectics: Models for Thinking About Complexity and Simplicity. I submitted the proposal under the shorter, pithier and probably-more-engaging title 'Understanding Complexity' in a sort-of homage to Scott McCloud. I decided that the original title was misleading—as stated in my précis...

This talk does not attempt to define complexity. Rather, it synthesizes approaches from several different disciplines: plectics (the study of simplicity and complexity); linguistics (metaphors for complexity); biology; music; architecture and urban design. All in an attempt to describe complexity and simplicity and provide some metrics for measuring both.

So, understanding seems like a bit of a tall order. Thus the drier, and slightly-more-obtuse 'Design Plectics.' Plectics is a term coined by Murray Gell-Mann to “describ[e] the subject of simplicity and complexity without committing ourselves as to whether we are talking about something simple [...] or something complex.” Gell-man is a Nobel-prize winning physicist and co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute, a school dedicated to the study of complexity in 'natural, artificial, and social systems.'

Really, my goal with this talk is to broaden the discussion somewhat around what consitutes complexity in the systems, products, information spaces and interfaces that we design. And I realize that—in the broadening—I will (somewhat ironically) complicate the discussion. But I think that the discussion could use a little complicating. Gell-mann, again, notes (emphasis mine):

What is complexity? A great many quantities have been proposed as measures of something like complexity. In fact, a variety of different measures would be required to capture all our intuitive ideas about what is meant by complexity and by its opposite, simplicity.

Simplicity has become quite the hot-button topic, of late, in the design world. John Maeda touts the virtues of Simplicity, Philips (sense and simplicity) have basically re-built their brand around it. Simplicity is praised as the reason behind the iPod's success and is apparently Google's secret sauce.

But by what measure do we declare something as 'simple'? Or complex? Maeda's 10 Laws of Simplicity are a step in the right direction but, for me, they suffer from a certain vagueness or fuzziness around the edges. (Don't take this as a condemnation—far from it—plectics, particularly design plectics, is by nature a fuzzy discussion.) Rather than tackle the question head-on (What makes something complex?) Maeda prefers to cast sidelong glances at the matter.. hints at what the true nature of simplicity might be, almost phrased as Zen koans.

His Laws, while intuitively right (and seemingly true) appeal to the notion of Simplicity without having an exact discussion about what Simplicity is. Take Rule No. 1, for instance, Reduce: “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.” 37signals has gotten a lot of mileage out of their similarly-minded “Less, Less, LESS” mantra.

(Disclaimer: I haven't actually read Maeda's book yet—although he spoke at Yahoo! recently, engaging with the book remains on my 'to do before the IA Summit' list.)

This, I think, is where we are with the current state of discussion around complex systems in design (and, appropriate to the Summit, information architecture.) We're very much working from a deep sense of intuition about complexity and simplicity (the “I know it when I see it” model.) I wonder if there aren't other models that can drive and, to some degree, order our thinking.

My talk will present... roughly.. 5 different ways to think about complexity. These models map somewhat to the progressive stages that Gell-mann and his colleagues in complex systems science went through in attempting to understand and define the field of plectics. (A couple of the models draw more from my own wild speculation than any precedent in the natural sciences.)

I'll be blogging about those models here in the coming weeks. (Partly to clarify my own thinking in preparation for the talk, and partly because the 40 minutes that I'm given to speak won't begin to do justice to the material. If anyone walks out of the talk curious for more info, I'm hoping to supply it here.)

And, as a final tease, here are a bunch of silly pictures from the last time I gave a version of this talk, sometime in 2001. These will likely be redone, or de-emphasized, this time around, but the concepts themselves will undoubtedly make an appearance. (Click on the image to view it in more detail on Flickr.)

Some Elements of Complexity

And now... Nyquil will end this conversation. Good night.



This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 14, 2007 10:38 PM.

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