In an art gallery, it’s not uncommon to hear “I could have done that.” You may have even said it yourself. I’ll admit to having had the thought once or twice! And the truth in many instances is yes, you very well could have done that. But art isn’t always about effort or skill — art is about expression. When we say “I could have done that,” what we are really asking is “Is something this simple or easy to accomplish worthy of hanging in this gallery?”
This question is as pervasive in the business world as it is among crowds wandering their way through art museums. It can be worded a million different ways, but the core question is “This appears simple, so how can it possibly be worth anything?” Author and podcaster Todd Henry provides this advice when faced with such questions: “Don’t confuse complexity with value.”
A good example of this concept can be found in the career and work of artist Mark Rothko. (I know, art critics, Rothko’s work was anything but simple to create, but it appears simple, grant me that?) When he began painting in the early 1920s, his images were representational — they were pictures of something. People, rooms, landscapes. The first few pages of a Rothko biography are filled with truly unremarkable paintings of things! Over the years, his style began to evolve. Figures were replaced with amoeba-like objects and backgrounds were reduced to simple brushstrokes. This systematic stripping away of complexity continued even further into the style we associate with him today. Abstract forms became simple color blocks, clear focal points were abandoned, and he eventually even stopped naming his paintings! And the truly remarkable thing is that each and every thing that he removed increased the painting’s overall impact exponentially. Standing in the presence of a large Rothko canvas is a moving experience. The raw emotional power of those color fields are remarkable. The artist himself described it as “the simple expression of the complex thought.”
We in the business world can learn a lot from this example. Steve Jobs certainly thought this way. His devotion to the simplicity of design and function has quite literally helped shape the world we live in today. Consumers respond more positively to simple messages, simple form, and simple interfaces. So where is the opposition to simplicity coming from? From within! Even those of us who create things for a living must constantly fight the urge to add more for the sake of more.
When simplicity faces opposition, it’s because “complicated” has come to be associated with “smart” in our hyper-connected world. But when it comes to pure impact – a real and powerful connection between brand and consumer – the magic is sometimes found by discovering the one idea at the heart of things and letting it fill your canvas.