A KISS isn’t Always Just a Kiss

One of the first design principles I remember learning in architecture school was the acronym KISS or ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ The professor who said this phrase clearly intended it to serve as a warning to students not to bite off more than they could chew. Not exactly a vote of confidence but it at least it introduced us to idea that broad design concepts could be used to help make individual design decisions.

There are many modern artistic movements that adopt this ‘less is more’ philosophy and focus solely on the inherent elegance of clean, unadorned design. The problem with this interpretation is that it still misses the mark regarding simplicity. There is a difference between minimalism — the idea of reducing something to its essential components — and simplicity — the idea of reducing overall complexity. Minimalism is almost entirely driven by the creative desires of the designer while simplicity must also take into account the needs of the user. Simplicity is often harder to acheive because it requires designers and engineers to anticipate problems and relationships that aren’t always readily apparent.

Perhaps a more appropriate interpretation of KISS (and one that appears to be closer to the original intent of the term) might be ‘keep it simple and stupid.’ This shifts attention away from the designer and toward the user and their relationship with the designed object. This isn’t to say that the user is an idiot, but that a good design shouldn’t require them to think more than is necessary. The relationship between the user and the object should be as natural as possible. In a sense, good design shifts the burden of thinking away from the user and places it on the shoulders of the designer. This takes more effort on the part of the designer.

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