Enough already! Balancing complexity in nature and design.

I’ve been thinking about how complexity influences form, function, and aesthetic appeal.

Part of this has involved considering how nature balances complexity with efficiency, and how evolution and selection are constantly refining living systems in response to their environment. Fortunately for us, this results in some pretty interesting and attractive results that we can consider as part of our creative efforts.

We can all think of examples of art and design that are complex in their form or appearance; for example the works of Pointillist artists such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, and those that are superficially simple, like the flowing sculptures of Henry Moore. In both these examples the superficial complexity of the work is an intrinsic part of their power. Deep thought, meaning and purpose can underlie apparently ‘simple’ design, just as technically or visually complicated work may be trying to transmit a simple message.

We might not even notice the complexity of the work; fine brush strokes viewed up close, disappear upon viewing the whole picture, forming a highlight here or the suggestion of a smile there. Conversely, simple lines and curves dashed off in a quick sketch can convey the essence of the subject matter, which we can recognize instantly without the need for further detail.

Nature seems to follow reductionist principals, with every adaption evolving to be as simple as possible whilst maintaining efficiency of purpose. The number and spacing of petals on a flower are optimized to maximize their packing and improve their ability to attract pollinators. The seedpods of many trees evolve fins, blades, and wing-shapes that allow the seeds to drift on the breeze as far from the tree as possible to reseed new territories. Reverse-engineering these natural adaptations to fulfil the needs of humans is a very difficult process, but one that often yields success. However, many simple, natural entities operate within highly complex larger systems. A single ant may be a simple functional unit, but an ant colony is a complex, dynamic thing.

It should be pointed out that in nature or in art, quantity does not equal complexity. In biology, the C-value paradox proposed in the 1940s asked why the complexity of an organism did not relate to the size of its genome – some salamanders have 40 times more DNA in their genome that do humans, yet we are undoubtedly the more complex animal. This was resolved by discovering that much of the salamander DNA was redundant – serving no obvious biological role, and unimportant for the animal to be able to develop and live. In humans, a recent study in Science revealed that only 10% of our 20,000 or so human genes are required for cells to survive and divide in the laboratory.


Some salamanders have 40 times more DNA than humans. Does this make them more complex?

I wonder if there might be such a thing as a ‘complexity threshold’ in art and in nature; a point at which adding more stuff just produces diminishing returns, or even detracts from the whole? Too heavy a brush stroke here or too much colour there… Perhaps, in the case of creativity and design, there are points at either end of the complexity spectrum that are just right to produce an emotional response?

So maybe it’s worth keeping mind when we are creating, when to be complex, and when to be simple. Understanding how and why we do this will allow us to convey our message more deliberately and effectively, and hopefully, more successfully.


Images: uxmag.com; savethesalamanders.com


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