Simplicity Shouldn’t Be a Bad Word

It has been said that there are two types of people in the world. That’s a bold claim – and perhaps not an entirely useful one in an era where everybody seems divided; forced to choose a side on everything from politics to whether that dress was black and blue or gold and white. Then again, there is some truth to the old adage. (Don’t believe it? Just throw out a firm stance on the proper direction for a toilet paper roll to be hung at your next meeting.)

When it comes to the creative industry, there is perhaps no greater example of the “two types of people” dichotomy than those who subscribe to the theory that “complexity is the sign of good work” and those who prefer a philosophy of simplicity.

It’s those K.I.S.S. folks I want to focus on today.

The great Richard Branson one said, “Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It’s hard to keep things simple.”

Creativity is, in itself, an elusive beast. Nobody really understands how or why or where it happens. (As noted by the number of creatives who seem to have AHA movements while in the shower or driving their car or pretty much anywhere besides a desk.) Creativity is a magical fairy that works on her own timeline, coming and going as she pleases. From what I have observed, this means most creative humans live in a pretty continual state of low-grade concern that their creative well will one day run dry. We also have a serious tendency to overcomplicate, overthink, and overdo. We can’t help it. That’s just who we are. (Maybe it’s tied to some primordial survival mechanism that helped our ancestors stay on their A-game during the cave person days. Who knows? Anthropologists, feel free to chime.)

The reality is that there will always be those few extra adjectives we hate to leave on the cutting room floor. There will always be a few more revisions we’d like to make or that one additional lens flares we’d like to squeeze in. But more isn’t always better. Complex isn’t always better. Much like minimalistic theory in the home, sometimes it’s what you’re willing to purge, release and leave out that uncovers greatness. Simplicity forces you to get wildly clear and honest – whether you’re (un)decorating a bookshelf or trying to grow a brand.

If you can’t express your brand mission and purpose in a single sentence, you’re probably not keeping it simple.

If you can’t articulate your brand’s value or point of differentiation, you’re probably not keeping it simple.

If you can’t explain what you do in terms a sixth grader can understand, you’re probably not keeping it simple.

My word-loving heart skips a beat when I click on a brand page and discover their purpose or mission succinctly packaged in a handful of words or a single sentence. Why? Because that’s a brand that knows what it’s doing – no b.s. or extra glitter needed.

The power of simplicity applies to brand identity, too – and Meow Wolf is a great example. If you’re not familiar, Meow Wolf is an immersive art experience created by a collective of artists out of New Mexico. Instead of viewing the art, you literally go into the art. Think one part Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole meets absinthe-induced hallucination meets alien planet tour meets life-sized comic book mystery. And really, that’s just scratching the surface.

If you’ve ever worked in marketing, you know that what may seem like simplest project can quickly and easily become the most difficult. Perhaps nowhere is that truer than brand naming – and rightfully so. A brand name is a big deal! Your mission may be the stake you put in the ground, but your name is, in many ways, the ground in which the stake is planted.

During my time walking through Meow Wolf, I kept thinking about their name. What did it mean? What does it stand for? Where did it come from? How did they choose it? I imagined a large group of artists debating the merits of different name options into the wee hours. Perhaps there were silent votes and smoke signals, not unlike the election of a new Pope, as the outside world waited with baited breath for the one true name.

A quick site search, however, revealed an entirely different reality:

“At the very first meeting of the collective in 2008, everyone put two words into a hat. Then [we] picked two random words out of the hat and got Meow Wolf.”

That story has stuck with me ever since; a case study in the power of simplicity.

Life is inherently complicated, but that doesn’t mean doing impactful work has to be complicated, too. Sometimes coming up with a new process or solution or improvement or innovation can benefit from simplicity, but perhaps not in the way we’re trained to think of the word. I’m talking about bold simplicity. Embracing the notion that less might actually be more. The courage to look what you do every hour of the day through the lens of someone who has no clue. A desire to uncover your version of naked simple – and stand firmly and proudly in it.

Simple does not mean easy.

Simple does not mean boring.

Simple does not mean prescriptive.

Simple means transparency.

Simple means clarity.

Simple means honesty.

And couldn’t we all use a little bit more of that?

Now go forth and keep it simple, smarty.

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