Miles Davis was an undisputed master of creating space in his improvised solos. His music sounded deceptively simple and effortless. Whatever came out of his horn seemed so honest and fresh, like he was having a fireside chat with himself on stage. Decades later his music continues to draw us in, timelessly calling us to anticipate his next move.
Music is not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.Miles Davis
In design terms, the function of space is well-documented. It helps us understand information better and encourages us to focus on specific parts of a design. Simplicity isn’t the end all be all of design or music — complexity has its own benefits — but it is sometimes overlooked as a basic, integral part of the process of creating things.
Effectiveness, of course, can mean lots of things. Sometimes simple just won’t help the musician (or artist, or web designer) achieve their goal. But it seems to me that focused simplicity usually helps. If we’re creating a website where the goal is to have a person click on A and then click on B. If we create websites that are too complex, we won’t be able to even find A in the first place.
Going back to jazz for a minute, here’s a breakdown of how the effectiveness of musical simplicity can evolve as a musician grows:
Beginners use simple phrases with lots of space because that’s all they’re capable of. Melodies are played as written, without embellishment or flair. Solos are basic and without complex rhythms or phrases.
Then we learn more notes, more passages and more rhythms. We fill up the space with sound. But, something isn’t quite right. The music now feels a little cluttered, perhaps forced in places.
Like the beginner, the master comes full circle and plays his melodies in a simple way — but soon another level is revealed. Just when you’re not sure if this musician is really a true master…he strays. An off note here, a syncopated rhythm there. An improvised melody is artfully woven into the fabric of the song.
The space allows the complex to thrive.
And right when this complexity has built the music up to a fervor pitch — it’s all simple and spacious again. The master used space and simplicity to allow the complex to thrive.
By keeping his true abilities closely guarded, the jazz musician amazes. For a designer, this might be translated as protecting against the tendency to over-design. Or more importantly, to not lose sight of what’s truly important for a project’s success.
Does the simplicity (or lack thereof) of this design serve the project’s stated goals? That might be the most important question to ask when analyzing whether or not a design is too complex. Just as a true musician listens and responds to the music itself, designers respond to each project in the moment.
And after asking those questions, if complexity is truly what’s needed for the project to succeed, just don’t tell Miles Davis.