It never fails to surprise me how great ideas can spring from very simple origins. There is something magical about taking a phrase or fleeting thought and then spinning it into something magnificent. A couple of recent experiences, both music-based, reminded me of this truism and the beauty of simplicity. In June, the Beatles’ album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was in the press, marking 50 years since its release. The idea to form an alternative band came from Paul McCartney, and his simple desire to stop being a Beatle for a while. In an interview reported in Rolling Stone, McCartney explains:
“I thought, ‘Let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos so we don’t have to project an image that we know. It would be much more free. What would really be interesting would be to actually take on the personas of this different band. We could say, ‘How would somebody else sing this? He might approach it a bit more sarcastically, perhaps’. So I had this idea of giving the Beatles alter egos simply to get a different approach.”
About the same time that ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ was being celebrated for its 50th, the exhibition ‘Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains’, opened at the V&A. One of the text panels in the exhibition explains that their album, ‘The Wall’, originated with Roger Waters feeling ‘a wall’ of distance between the band and the audience. Waters gives a fuller explanation in a 1979 interview:
“Well, the idea for ‘The Wall’ came from ten years of touring, rock shows, I think, particularly the last few years in ‘75 and in ‘77 we were playing to very large audiences, some of whom were our old audience who’d come to see us play, but most of whom were only there for the beer, in big stadiums, and, er, consequently it became rather an alienating experience doing the shows. I became very conscious of a wall between us and our audience and so this record started out as being an expression of those feelings.”
Both ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ and ‘The Wall’ are considered ground-breaking and classics of their genre. They are complex, dense, rich masterpieces (you can tell which way my musical preferences lean), and yet in each case the catalyst was so simple and so tiny. Both albums were born from the consequences of massive commercial success – in the case of the Beatles, it was a desire to escape from themselves, and in the case of Pink Floyd, it was a desire to reconnect with audiences. Without knowing the greatness that was to follow, both ideas may have seemed a bit too simple when first pitched – kinda cheesy and obvious. But maybe that’s why these ideas stuck and didn’t end up put to one side with the many hundreds of other ideas that could’ve – but didn’t – go anywhere. Great ideas always feel so obvious after the fact, it’s hard to imagine they weren’t thought of sooner.
Simple can mean a lot of different things – it can suggest the clean lines and stripped back perfection of modernist design, or a straightforward task that’s easy to do and requires minimal skill, or, at its most derogatory, a lack of intelligence (think of Kate Moss’s famous insult to an EasyJet pilot, calling her a “basic bitch”). Depending on how you cut it, simplicity is honing something to its purest state; cutting out the tricky stuff to make it more comprehensible; or building up from humble beginnings. For people who get caught up in their heads too much, or get overwhelmed and blinded by the details, it can be useful to go through a dramatic pruning exercise, clipping an overgrown, overblown idea back down to its core, or simply starting over and asking ‘what do I really want to do?’ and answering in the simplest possible terms.
I had assumed that the handy acronym, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), came from the world of advertising/marketing, but it’s a US Military term, dating to the 1960s. Its exact origins aren’t clear, but it was probably coined by aeronautical and systems engineer, Kelly Johnson, who was lead engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works and famous for his aircraft designs. For Johnson, simple design had the very practical benefit of enabling an average mechanic with available tools to be able to repair damaged aircraft, a huge advantage when working in combat conditions.
So simplicity can be the key to both the generation of new ideas, and the successful execution of ideas. Simplicity also plays an important role in the communication of ideas. I love the quote “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” (often attributed to Einstein, although there seems to be some debate about this). I have seen this maxim in action – years ago I attended a Science Festival talk on quantum physics, delivered by the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. He was such a strong communicator that I came away thinking I was some sort of quantum savant, having understood this incredibly complex and mind-bending subject (I later discovered this was untrue). I loved Rees’s confidence in both himself and his subject – he didn’t bamboozle and confuse the audience, leaving them adrift in a sea of jargon; instead, he knew quantum physics SO well, and was so passionate about sharing his love of it with others, that he could bring the audience into his world and make it look effortless. Total class. Rees often comes to mind when I read opaque and incomprehensible text panels in exhibitions – if he can make quantum physics accessible, we should be able to do the same with contemporary art.
It’s so easy to get bogged down in the complexities and difficulties of delivering our roles, but whenever I reflect on simplicity, a little bit of extra space opens up in my thinking. Like a small clearing in a forest, simplicity creates room to breathe and can provide new solutions to existing challenges.