Complex Order, Simple Chaos

January 9, 2009

While researching external source material for an upcoming article on one of the Gestalt principles of perception I came across this explanation for one of them:

“When confronted with visual information, people will attempt to organize that information into the simplest form possible.” (1)

This statement struck me as, in part, what we often aim for in a design process. There’s a problem, however, with the author’s statement and I missed it the first few times I read it. Eventually on reflection it occurred to me that simplification has nothing to do with organization. Hence, the simplest form is not necessarily similar to the most orderly form. These are distinct states! Now, the author of this statement may not have literally meant to suggest this relationship, but these are interesting distinctions to explore. Let’s indulge a bit here.

It is likely that most people can function just fine while ignoring or being unaware of the distinctions between orderly and simple or between chaotic and complex, but not designers. We stake our worth on the ability to perceive and exploit relationships (and distinctions!) that others don’t consciously recognize. These distinctions are fundamental to design theory and instrumental in practice. When designers confuse the two as being similar (as perhaps did the author cited above), design effectiveness can suffer as a result—as we’ll see later.

The thesis I’m going to build here has some holes in it, but I still deem this to be a worthy examination. I hope the holes leave you curious enough to engage in your own reflection or research to expound on these thoughts. Note that this article, while not a dedicated volume of my ongoing Gestalt series, should be considered a recommended resource to that series.


Loosely speaking, one can conceivably organize something into a simple form, but simplification is not organization. It is important to note that the two terms and processes cannot be used interchangeably. Doing so will inevitably result in either blunder or disaster. While the two are often associated with one another, organization and simplification are distinct by their very nature.


The two process continuums are:

Simple -------------|------------ Complex

Orderly ------------|------------ Chaotic


As the examples above suggest, a continuum that moves from simple to chaotic, or from orderly to complex, would not follow strict logic. Yet when presented with a simple statement that alluded to an equation or intimate relationship between organization and simplification, it took me a while to perceive the non sequitur. As a professional, I’m quite glad that my mistake was made while working on a personal project and not during client work. It could easily have caused serious problems.

Now, one could argue that something orderly is somewhat simple, and that something chaotic is comparatively complex (one of the holes I mentioned). If we stop there, however, we miss some important ideas and facts that can affect our choices and impact our design work. The fact is design must often work to preserve complexity rather than eliminate it. Rudolph Arnheim recognized this when he wrote:

“Order and complexity, however, cannot exist without each other. Complexity without order produces confusion—order without complexity produces boredom. […] It has long been recognized that the great works of man combine high order with high complexity.” (2)

So if we are to work with both order/chaos and with simplicity/complexity in distinct and contextually appropriate ways, we should likely examine them in spirit and detail. Oddly enough, this requires that we delve into architecture and chemistry.

An architect, a chemist, and a butcher walk into a bar…

Organization is architecture. It does not erase complexity, it merely reconfigures it. An architect might take what amounts to a chaotic mess of girders, brick, rebar, cement, rubber, wiring, pipes, ducts, glass, and aluminum and organize it all into a significantly less-chaotic, functional building. The web designer may do the same with copy, images, mechanisms, and signposts to create an orderly website. Order allows information or meaning to be more easily penetrated and can facilitate communication or understanding. Generally speaking, bringing order to chaos preserves information. The trick is to organize without changing important component relationships that serve as informational or communicative lynchpins.

Organization is value-neutral. Organizing a set of components or information does not necessarily bring improvement or clarity. For example, when planning how to utilize the thousands of components for a house …hinges on doors are helpful. Hinges on drawers might not be. For the web designer, implementation of a strong grid can aid with page organization. But this benefit is rendered moot if the grid does not serve to preserve, support, or enhance informational relationships.

For simplification, put on your lab coat and goggles. Simplification is chemistry; where elements and information are combined, substituted or removed as required. But transforming complexity into simplicity does not necessarily preserve information. Simplification can destroy or corrupt information through elimination. (Which is why distillation is likely most effective. Again with the chemistry.)

The power of simplification is that it can facilitate a more efficient or direct communication, but often at the expense of comprehensiveness or flexibility. Information or ability lost in the process of simplification might not be regained. Simplification, it would seem, is a delicate business. With all of this reduction, distillation, and/or combination going on, like with chemistry, if you’re not careful the results may blow up in your face. While perhaps just as important as organization, simplification is somewhat more volatile. This is what is meant when some say that it is difficult to make things simple. They mean, it is hard to make things simple and yet as effective as necessary. Making things too simple is the result of butchery …like how Van Gogh simplified his head.

Why does it matter?

By now, “designers” for whom practicality must be demonstrated in order for a lesson to be deemed relevant may be asking, “why spend time laboring over this sort of minutiae?” One immediately practical reason is that a failure to appreciate these distinctions can horribly derail a design effort, especially a redesign effort. You’ve engaged in redesign efforts haven’t you?

I have noticed as perhaps you have that it’s quite common for designers to evaluate a complex application or website and return the increasingly not-so-earth-shattering determination that “we have to simplify.” In cases where the pathology is misdiagnosed, the designer gets off to a bad start, on the wrong foot, down the wrong road, toward the wrong destination. The results will be predictably …wrong.

For example, is one of the more complex and poorly designed websites in the world of successful online vendors (as noted elsewhere, they succeed for reasons other than their website design). The team has done quite a good job of incorporating a menagerie of interesting, effective, useful, and sales-fueling components into their website. On these points they are masterful and, from time to time, innovative players in the online retail world. The design fails—as does the user experience—because of terrible organization. Chaos, not complexity, is their sin.

In a hypothetical situation, a designer who approached the redesign of with the baseline assumption that the website’s chaos should be simplified (a logically impossible act) would likely do great harm to the company if allowed to. Now, can you think of any similar projects in which you’ve been involved where your first thought was “simplify!“? Ruh roh.

Now, it is not my purpose here to broadly incriminate efforts at simplification, but I put it to you that in many cases recommendations toward simplicity are the lazy/shallow man’s answer to design. Complexity is seldom problematic …in anything. But where complexity would seem to be a problem, it’s likely that order, not simplicity, should be imposed. Complexity is often inherent in or even vital to the success of a product, application, or website experience. To design-away that vital complexity is to damage the product and the user experience. And perhaps the human experience.

The human experience

To be clear, simplicity is a wonderful condition and valid ideal (and a thing of beauty and a joy forever), and can bring benefits that are otherwise difficult or impossible to achieve. It is not, however, the ideal. Nor is simplicity an absolute; like all other conditions, simplicity is relative. One does not flip a switch from complex to simple and achieve design success or excellent user experience. Simplification requires measured and conscientious effort toward a specific goal—in our profession, often measured against human requirements and contextually relevant needs and aims.

We must remember, however, that human requirements are almost always more complex than one might imagine; and this brings us back more specifically toward design. One of our more common project aims is to design a pleasurable experience. But what constitutes a pleasurable experience? More to the point, where along the respective continuums of complex-to-simple and chaotic-to-orderly does an experience become most pleasurable? (…perhaps design the website ribbed for maximum pleasure.)

The lazy/shallow answer is easy: absolutely simple and orderly. If you follow popular modern design theory the lazy/shallow answer would seem correct, except that it is wrong in nearly every case. Certainly, context plays an important role in making this determination, but there is plenty of reference for human preference in these matters. As much as we need order and simplicity in our lives, we also need novelty. Arnheim again recognized this when he wrote:

“Although order is needed to cope with both the inner and outer world, man cannot reduce his experience to a network of neatly predictable connections without losing the stimulating riches and surprises of life. Being complexly designed, man must function complexly if he is to be fully himself—and to this end the setting in which he operates must be complex also.” (3)

Part of the job of a good design is to address issues of organization and simplicity so that viewers and users of the designed object are freed from some of that responsibility. Our aim is to ensure that understanding and interaction can be achieved with less “work.” But if the designer removes all responsibility for cognitive work from the viewer/user, the designed object may not invite as much interest as it might have otherwise. Sometimes this situation does not damage user experience and sometimes it means the design fails.

In truth and without putting too fine a point on things, a good user experience must be neither too mundane nor too overwhelming. Alfred North Whitehead lent some clarity to this issue when he observed:

“The essence of rhythm is the fusion of sameness and novelty; so that the whole never loses the essential unity of the pattern, while the parts exhibit the contrast arising from the novelty of their detail. A mere recurrence kills rhythm as does a mere confusion of differences. A crystal lacks rhythm from excessive pattern, while a fog is unrhythmic in that it exhibits a patternless confusion of detail” (4)

Perhaps the ideal is complex order and simple chaos. I hope that Whitehead’s observations here have compelled you to extrapolate a few applications of this idea; he references a seminal principle. Clearly though, absolute order or absolute chaos is anesthetic (5). Surely the same must be said of simplicity and complexity. And no, this ain’t simple stuff, folks, but neither is design. We have to embrace that fact or perish in the face of it.

Follow the white rabbit

Order, chaos, simplicity, complexity, architecture, chemistry (…butchery). These simple terms and ideas are like everything else associated with design and communication: If we spend enough time referencing and enjoying the simple ideas they represent we may forget or miss the fact that each is deep beyond measure. What their depths reveal can be extraordinary.

One might do a fairly good, even credible job of designing things with only a broad and general knowledge, but there’s more. For every basic surface principle and fundamental idea there is a darker, less-penetrable crevice and a rabbit hole beyond that. It takes work and is often boring, but these rabbit holes are worth exploring (hey, that rhymes!).

Speaking of holes, I’ve sidestepped a few of them in this article and I hope that you take it upon yourself to find them and examine them more closely than I have here. In fact, write an article or two about them. I promise you’ll discover even more in that process.

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2. Arnheim, Rudolph, Order and Complexity in Landscape Design, (unpublished 1960).
Toward a Psychology of Art: Collected Essays By Rudolf Arnheim.
(University of California Press, 1972)

3. Arnheim, Rudolph, Order and Complexity in Landscape Design, (unpublished 1960).
Toward a Psychology of Art: Collected Essays By Rudolf Arnheim.
(University of California Press, 1972)

4. Whitehead, A. N., 1919, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)

5. Anesthetic: The opposite of aesthetic; devoid of sensation or stimulation.

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