Chapter Eight

Navigating Complexity

Navigating Complexity

Navigating Complexity

Navigating Complexity

Navigating Complexity

Humans long for simplicity. It’s in our DNA to desire things to be accessible and understandable. And yet often our own complexities get in the way of this noble aspiration.

I think this drive for simplicity also reveals our draw toward nostalgia. We become sentimental about the past because times seemed simpler “back then.” We believe this false memory over the reality that our minds are quite malleable. We know, deep down, that times weren’t simpler, like our retelling of them would suggest, and yet we cling to this reassuring sentimentality in our lives.

And as designers, we mold this kind of perception. We long to create simplicity out of the confusion that surrounds us. The truth is that many facets of our natural world are quite complex. Our own anatomies illustrate that we are an intricate amalgam of complex systems. How do we make sense of it all? 

As designers we are also translators. We translate complexity into clear communication. Though we can characterize a lot of our work as simplification, often what we are doing is clarifying rather than reducing.

There are countless metaphors for the role of the designer. Grasping for the right one shows that even defining our practice can be quite complicated. However it’s in navigating this intricacy that we embody a designer’s greatest role, guide.


Friction and tension

Complexity is quite daunting. The more complicated something is, the more anxiety it produces or the more confusing it becomes. In the very beginning of this book, I mentioned the tension between our clients and their users. What I didn’t mention is that those who walk that taut line are designers. It would almost be easier if it were a simple highwire act; however, as guides, we become experts navigating this entangled tension.

Some designers naturally shy away from tension. Concepts like tension and friction are often discussed pejoratively in our discipline. We see their presence as something that must be eradicated. We believe in fallacies like, “Good design is easy,” and “Good design must be intuitive.” The truth is that design can be easy and intuitive, but these aren’t always requirements for responsible design.

I often wonder about the idealistic world we design in our heads. These tantalizing illusions aren’t just problems isolated to designers, they influence our entire culture. Progress has made us all anxiously awaiting the days where everything will be simple. What we fail to pause and ask is, “What happens when everything is easy?”

In a world with no tension or friction, what has value or meaning? This isn’t purely a rhetorical exercise. It speaks to the worth of navigating complexity well. Something that’s simple doesn’t always mean that it’s also easy. Some of the most simplistic principles are quite complicated to embody.

The natural world exists and thrives because of the physical properties of friction and tension. Don’t believe me? Trying wearing bowling shoes on an ice rink or hanging wet clothes on a Slinky. Physics is necessary to our existence. It doesn’t just govern our physical world but our social lives as well. Intimacy even relies on these elements. Though counterintuitive, real community is formed around the tension that vulnerability brings to relationships.

While these statements are true, not everything should be easy and some things won’t be intuitive. We can still embrace simplicity while acknowledging the need for necessary friction.

I’ve found that the designers that I most admire don’t shy away from these realities. They flourish in them. There’s wisdom in being able to walk confidently into the convoluted greyness that forms between our clients and their audiences. While guides are often unnecessary to navigate well-trodden trails,  they are quite comfortable in the wilderness.


Becoming guides

Two of the most formational Summers of my life to date were spent guiding rafts down the New River Gorge in West Virginia. Regardless of its clever name, the New River is an incredibly old river, meaning it’s meandered its way through some rugged, alpine terrain. This creates not only some adrenaline-inducing whitewater but also presents its fair share of dangerous complications.

Training was terrifying. Navigating the current’s intricacies impossible. When I took the river one rapid at a time, spent countless hours studying it, and trusted the current, it suddenly didn’t feel so treacherous. Simplicity could be created even within the chaos of nature.

I never thought my seasons on the water would influence how I thought about design. Perhaps its lessons are still settling into my practice. What I’ve found is that the principles I learned in that time aren’t all that different from the natural flow we navigate in design. I learned quickly that to the people I worked with, design challenges seemed like navigating rushing whitewater on a raft. The landscape was too complex and the solutions seemed too shrouded in the possibility of failure. And yet they really only needed someone who could take on the challenge one aspect at a time.

Navigation requires familiarity. It’s only through time spent within an ecosystem that you can truly understand its intricacies. It doesn’t always mean you have to know the exact map, but you’ve been through topography like this before. Things don’t feel completely new. Our familiarity with the complexities of design is what helps us communicate simply to our clients and, in turn, to their users. We need both parties to understand the design process, in part. However, it’s in time spent staring at the challenge that we form simple solutions. 

Once we see where feet are treading we can start to form a path that adapts to humans in their environments. I always loved seeing this process take shape on my college campus. A well-trodden footpath blazed from thousands of steps  would eventually kill the grass. The next year, that path would become a sidewalk. This was a process that responded to the humans who would go on to use its solutions.

These natural paths form all around us. It simply takes time and energy to discover them. I can often feel defeated when I can't seem to figure out a solution to a challenging problem. It usually takes the eyes of another person (often a non-designer), however, to say, “Shouldn’t you just ______________?” The other maddening aspect of the development is often that insight happens once your work it living in the wild. As long as we’re humans, we are going to miss something the first time, but in this weakness comes an incredible design principle: iteration.


Try, try again

I believe pride is what keeps us from embracing the initial versions of our workThe idealist in us has a hard time accepting anything less than “perfect.” Humans make mistakes; it’s what we do. And because this separates us from machines, and I am grateful.

I think design is meant to be iterative. Our lives are in constant flux, and even the most mundane aspects of our lives tend to change over time. This means our needs as humans will also change. Designing for humans can feel like chasing after a moving target with a bow and arrow because that’s what we’re doing.

It’s hard and nearly impossible to form a solution that will last forever. I don’t think anything we create was meant to last forever. Its stagnation quickly becomes a disservice to those using it. We must iterate upon our design for it to truly reflect the people that will benefit from it. This requires a great deal of time and energy. It requires talking to real people in real places, which isn’t very efficient by our cultural standards. It also requires an immense amount of humility to constantly put our own work under the microscope. But at the end of the day it’s not about us. It’s about them.

It seems like the world would be so much easier if we could just set our design into motion and stop tinkering with things.

But there we go again.

Why does it need to be easy? It can be so easy to fall for this train thought. Let’s be honest: It’s just laziness. Frustrations with others and their needs is poor self-reflection on our part. We are someone else’s user — probably the really frustrating user we ourselves get so bent out of shape about. I don’t know about you, but I’m grateful someone is iterating on my behalf, constantly searching for simplicity for our good. So, therein we prove the golden rule for design. Though we aren’t always our own users, shouldn’t we design the things we’d want to consume if we were in their shoes? Now I think we’re onto something.


How then shall we design?

So how do we transform into guides that help others navigate the complexities of design?

Here’s a start:

1. Embrace complexity.
We can’t shy away from the complexity of our job, what it demands from us, and the challenges we seek to solve for others. It’s only in familiarizing ourselves with the endless nuances of the problems our clients and their audiences are facing that we can start to formulate lasting change.

2. Learn the territory.
Experience the challenges firsthand. When possible, try to recreate the scenarios that you’re trying to solve for. See what solutions form naturally from the empathy you exercise in those situations.

3. Iterate and repeat.
Exercise humility. Continually come back to the reality that you may not get it right the first time. Rather than allowing this truth to defeat you and your practice, use it as fuel to fire your design.


Creating clarity

Creating simplicity from chaos is toilsome work. However, like most things, through its  challenges we find the reward of solving real issues. Experiencing complexity builds not only empathy of perspective. As humans, we’re really good at over-simplifying challenges. Though it is  simplicity that we seek, we mustn't project it onto our processes but rather discover it within ecosystems. This is where we will start to create clarity.

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Chapter Nine

Building Community

Transcending Time

Coming November

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Design Does. was written & produced by Jeremy D. Cherry.
Typeset in GT Sectra Display, IBM Plex Sans, & Cardo.

License — CC BY-NC-SA