15 February 2011

Simple Is Hard

Several friends recently recommended The King is Dead,  the latest album by The Decemberists. I must admit I wasn't familiar with their music so I figured I'd check them out. I like it quite a bit, but that's not why I bring it up.

The writeup on Amazon had some interesting comments about simplicity and complexity, explaining that this album "...marks a deliberate turn towards simplicity after the band's wildly ambitious and widely acclaimed 2009 song-cycle The Hazards of Love."

The description goes on to say their simpler sound is just as good as their previously complex efforts: "The King Is Dead showcases the ways in which The Decemberists... sound just as glorious in simple, stripped-down compositions as they do on the elaborate structures that have defined their work for years."

From an aesthetic point of view, complexity can be really attractive. I love-love-love the intricate flavor of steampunk tech, for example. Part of the appeal is historical, I'm sure. I like the way steampunk highlights an older, more effortful way of doing things. Steampunk is cool because the complexity involved is something we've moved beyond. But it's also cool because, well, it just looks cool. But I also totally dig the stripped-down, simple and elegant designs of iPods, for example.

So The Decemberists' album isn't praiseworthy because their earlier albums were lousy - nobody's saying that. It's just a different approach to making good music. A simpler approach.

What really caught my eye was when one of the musicians explained that "creating straightforward, unadorned songs can be at least as hard as building complicated musical epics. "For all my talk about how complex those records were, this one may have been harder to do," he says. "It's a real challenge to make simple music, and lot of times we had to deliberately hold off and keep more space. This record is an exercise in restraint."

An exercise in restraint. That's a good exercise for musicians and artists as well as program managers and engineers. The results, well, I think they speak for themselves.

Want to read more about simplicity and complexity and how they relate to design and user experiences? Download your free copy of The Simplicity Cycle at RoguePress.

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