LearningOpinionVisual Thinking

Difference Between Simple, Complicated and Complex

John Maeda quote

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”

– John Maeda

How many times have you heard a Subject Matter Expert respond to a question with the reply, ‘It’s complicated!’

Just because something is complicated doesn’t mean it can’t be simplified; and something simple doesn’t mean it can’t be built into something complex.

When working with SMEs I share with them what I believe the difference is between ‘simple’ and ‘complex’.

Both words share a common root word origin – pli, ‘to fold’ (think of a plait of hair). Simple means to fold once; while complex means to fold many times.

To me, ‘complicated’ is a half-way house between simple and complex.

If we can unfold something complicated, we can reduce to simple ideas and then investigate what the learner already knows about this (‘subtracting the obvious’) and only present the meaningful.

We can then build a learner’s knowledge and understanding from simple to complex by linking the simple ideas (i.e. folding) into a group of connected ideas – the very definition of ‘complex’.

We remove complicated and produce meaning.


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