complex order, simple chaos

While researching external source material for an upcoming article on one of the Gestalt principles of perception came across this explanation for one of them:
When confronted with visual information, people will attempt to organize that information into the simplest form possible. 1

This statement struck me as, in part, what we often aim for in a design process. Thereʼs a problem, however, with the authorʼs statement and I missed it the first few times I read it. Eventually on reflection it occurred to me that simplification has nothing to do with organization. Hence, the simplest form is not necessarily similar to the most orderly form. These are distinct states! Now, the author of this statement may not have literally meant to suggest this relationship, but these are interesting distinctions to explore. Letʼs indulge a bit here.

It is likely that most people can function just fine while ignoring or being unaware of the distinctions between orderly and simple or between chaotic and complex, but not designers. We stake our worth on the ability to perceive and exploit relationships (and distinctions!) that others donʼt consciously recognize. These distinctions are fundamental to design theory and instrumental in practice. When designers confuse the two as being similar (as perhaps did the author cited above), design effectiveness can suffer as a result—as weʼll see later.

The thesis Iʼm going to build here has some holes in it, but I still deem this to be a worthy examination. I hope the holes leave you curious enough to engage in your own reflection or research to expound on these thoughts. Note that this article, while not a dedicated volume of my ongoing Gestalt series, should be considered a recommended resource to that series.


Loosely speaking, one can conceivably organize something into a simple form, but simplification is not organization. It is important to note that the two terms and processes cannot be used interchangeably. Doing so will inevitably result in either blunder or disaster. While the two are often associated with one another, organization and simplification are distinct by their very nature.

The two process continuums are:

simple -------------|------------ complex

orderly ------------|------------ chaotic

As the examples above suggest, a continuum that moves from simple to chaotic, or from orderly to complex, would not follow strict logic. Yet when presented with a simple statement that alluded to an equation or intimate relationship between organization and simplification, it took me a while to perceive the non sequitur. As a professional, Iʼm quite glad that my mistake was made while working on a personal project and not during client work. It could easily have caused serious problems.

Now, one could argue that something orderly is somewhat simple, and that something chaotic is comparatively complex (one of the holes I mentioned). If we stop there, however, we miss some important ideas and facts that can affect our choices and impact our design work. The fact is design must often work to preserve complexity rather than eliminate it. Rudolph Arnheim recognized this when he wrote:

Order and complexity, however, cannot exist without each other. Complexity without order produces confusion —order without complexity produces boredom […] It has long been recognized that the great works of man combine high order with high complexity.2

So if we are to work with both order/chaos and with simplicity/complexity in distinct and contextually appropriate ways, we should likely examine them in spirit and detail. Oddly enough, this requires that we delve into architecture and chemistry.

an architect, a chemist, and a butcher walk into a bar…

Organization is architecture. It does not erase complexity, it merely reconfigures it. An architect might take what amounts to a chaotic mess of girders, brick, rebar, cement, rubber, wiring, pipes, ducts, glass, and aluminum and organize it all into a significantly less-chaotic, functional building. The web designer may do the same with copy, images, mechanisms, and signposts to create an orderly website. Order allows information or meaning to be more easily penetrated and can facilitate communication or understanding. Generally speaking, bringing order to chaos preserves information. The trick is to organize without changing important component relationships that serve as informational or communicative lynchpins.

Just as with chemistry, simplification may involve reduction, distillation, and/or combination in order to achieve the desired results. Also like chemistry, if youʼre not careful the results may blow up in your face.

Just as with chemistry, simplification may involve reduction, distillation, and/or combination in order to achieve the desired results. Also like chemistry, if you're not careful the results may blow up in your face.

Organization is value-neutral. Organizing a set of components or information does not necessarily bring improvement or clarity. For example, when planning how to utilize the thousands of components for a house…hinges on doors are helpful. Hinges on drawers might not be. For the web designer, implementation of a strong grid can aid with page organization. But this benefit is rendered moot if the grid does not serve to preserve, support, or enhance informational relationships.

For simplification, put on your lab coat and goggles. Simplification is chemistry; where elements and information are combined, substituted or removed as required. But transforming complexity into simplicity does not necessarily preserve information. Simplification can destroy or corrupt information through elimination. (Which is why distillation is likely most effective. Again with the chemistry.)

The power of simplification is that it can facilitate a more efficient or direct communication, but often at the expense of comprehensiveness or flexibility.

Information or ability lost in the process of simplification might not be regained. Simplification, it would seem, is a delicate business. With all of this reduction, distillation, and/or combination going on, like with chemistry, if youʼre not careful the results may blow up in your face. While perhaps just as important as organization, simplification is somewhat more volatile. This is what is meant when some say that it is difficult to make things simple. They mean, it is hard to make things simple and yet as effective as necessary. Making things too simple is the result of butchery…like how Van Gogh simplified his head.


  1. Gestalt Principles of Perception
  2. Arnheim, Rudolph, Order and Complexity in Landscape Design, (unpublished 1960)
    Toward a Psychology of Art: Collected Essays By Rudolf Arnheim.
    (University of California Press, 1972)