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Design: shedding the shackles of complexity

Design: shedding the shackles of complexity

Long after the more elaborate designs have fallen out of fashion, the simple ones remain much-loved. Just look at Shaker furniture, Apple computers and Japanese rock gardens. We believe the same holds true for investing: no unnecessary fancies, please.

The Shakers are dying out, but Shaker furniture is not.

The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, to give the Shakers their more formal name, has only three full members left, living in a single Shaker house in New Gloucester, Maine. Their practice of celibacy makes it difficult to find members to join, and impossible to produce new members through procreation.

But the style of furniture to which they gave their name lives on. In the name of self-sufficiency, members of this pacifist Christian sect which pioneered gender equality made their own furniture right from the time it was founded in the eighteenth century. The objects were, accordingly, plain, with no carvings or other unnecessary luxuries. The style became so popular that it eventually proved a major source of income for the Shakers.

Perhaps the ultimate modern example of restrained, well-loved design is the Apple phenomenon. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, declared the headline of Apple’s first marketing brochure in 1977. This meant simple, intuitive interfaces for Apple computers, designed to mimic the organisation of files on an office worker’s “desktop” – a word now associated more with computers than with real desks, thanks to Jobs’ innovations.

The same desire for simplicity can be found outside the world of manufactured products.

It was a similar love of uncluttered design that inspired Harry Beck’s 1932 map of the London Underground, the city’s subway system. Previous maps often superimposed the Underground map over a plan of the city’s roads. They were also created with strict geographical accuracy: the centrally located stations were shown very close together, with the out-of-town stations spaced far apart. Beck’s more simple design, inspired by electrical circuit diagrams, was initially resisted by the powers that be, but proved so popular with the public that it has been used ever since.

Perhaps the most famous gardens in the world are the minimalist spaces found in the great Japanese zen temples, such as the rock garden in Ryouanji, Kyoto. Design does not come much simpler than that. Largely because of the zen influence, the aesthetic of simplicity is extremely powerful in the country, whether in architecture, clothing or teacups.

Much great art is pared down, too: some of the greatest painters chose to draw beautiful pictures in a tiny number of movements. When creating his basic but extremely expressive line drawings of women in the first half of the twentieth century, the French artist Henri Matisse tried to use as few lines as possible.

It takes a certain confidence to create simple classics of design and art

It takes a certain confidence to create simple classics of design and art. The less self-assured – possibly because they are less talented – are tempted to show off, by making what they do seem as complex and intricate as possible. The same holds true for investment managers – the ones who try to impress you with impenetrable jargon are less sure of themselves than they seem.

But simple design ultimately pays off, as the huge and relatively recent success of Apple shows.

© Stapleton Collection/Corbis

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