Simplicity and Inner Calm

(Christopher Alexander, architect and city planner, proposed fifteen properties as characteristic of natural order. I’m considering them one by one in terms of society, design generally, and user experience in particular. “Simplicity and Inner Calm” is number 14.)

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“Send me $50,000 and I’ll enroll you in a two year course in Simplicity and Inner Calm. All you have to do then is follow the twenty-five hundred rules on the Path to Enlightenment while renouncing everything else.”

Somehow, that does not seem to be in the spirit of simplicity and inner calm. Some of the properties I discussed earlier are closer to being about something “out there” that is somewhat measurable; e.g., levels of scale, boundaries, alternating repetition, roughness. Simplicity and Inner Calm are characteristics of things “out there” but they cause or at least resonate with simplicity and inner calm in a person. 

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a place to enforce a particular emotional state. If someone arrives at a beautiful still lake with hate and rage in their heart and possesses a determination to stay mad by God because he deserves to be mad! Then the mere presence of beautiful scenery won’t calm them in some immediate and magical way. But, I would bet money that they would be less upset an hour later than when they arrived. 

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Meanwhile, let’s imagine their identical twin also had an identical quantity of rage in their heart and arrived at a loud buzzing booming construction site and had to sit there for an hour. Such a setting, I would imagine, would do nothing to calm them and might make them even more enraged. 

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Of course, as any therapist can tell you, what you do inside your head often has more to do with how you feel than does the objective situation. I certainly believe that. Yet, I also believe that situations out there make a difference on average. In my experience, being in a safe situation surrounded by natural beauty tends to make nearly everyone feel better. 

Not all situations “work” equally well for everyone, but for most of the people I have interacted with, views of distant mountains; calm clear lakes; ocean shores; a clearing in the woods — especially if there is a calm animal there; a single tree on a small hilltop — these tend to induce a feeling of simplicity and inner calm. 

There are two things that have amazed me for a long time about natural settings. I think they both relate to why natural settings seem to produce more simplicity and inner calm. 

The first mystery is auditory. I have heard the calls of many creatures in nature. Most are, in and of themselves, attractive. Some are beautiful. A few are more annoying sounds. But for me, at least, they never seem to clash. Walking through a field and forest, I may hear insects, frogs, and a dozen species of birds. But none of them clash. That adds to inner calm.

The second mystery is visual. I’ve walked through many natural settings and have seen what must be every color possible to see. But the colors never “clash.” How can that be? It’s one thing to mix and match greens and blues. They don’t really seem to clash that much even in artificial settings. But what about pinks, reds, oranges? I’ve seen plenty of people wearing clothing that clashes and likely been guilty of it myself. But autumn leaves? They are all over the place, but they don’t clash. This also adds to inner calm.

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I think the genetic reason that clashes are not prevalent in nature is that we co-evolved with the environment. Perceiving harmony in what is would have been adaptive in two important ways. First, since harmony is the natural state, feeling good while surrounded by harmony would mean that you would feel good most of the time. As Harry Potter once put it, you would have something worth fighting for. If you enjoy life, then, when the going gets tough, you are more likely to tough it out.

Second, when things go sideways in external reality, you would quickly notice the disharmony. While normally, you would feel peaceful, when the birds suddenly starting fleeing in one direction and squawking, your feeling would change and you would be more likely to survive whatever comes next. 

These reasons are manifest in some of the other fifteen properties. For example, the roughness of shape of autumn leaves means that there will be natural variation in color as seen even if they are actually identical (which of course, they are not). Having distributions of color is a kind of “roughness” characteristic of nature’s colors. Clothing on the other hand is another matter. The goal of mass production is lack of variability. So, 10,000 items are precisely the same color (or as close as humanly possible). If one is slightly off, it is noticeable. If each of the 10,000 items were part of a very broad, multidimensional distribution, being slightly more extreme than most would not produce a perception of clash. 

That, to me, is also the problem with monoculture as a social philosophy. I delve into this in more detail in the blog post — “A tight flock united by division.”

A tight flock united by division.

Briefly, the more everyone is supposed to “toe the line” to a particular way of doing things; e.g., which restaurants to go to, which shows to watch, which religion to believe in, what clothes to wear, what food to eat, etc., the more intolerant it becomes. And the more intolerant it becomes, the more people try desperately to adhere to the middle of the crowded road they share with everyone they know. Everyone who does anything differently comes to be seen as a reproach to the lack of individuality in the middle of the road. And the people who insist that everyone must stay in the middle do not want to move. Not only that. They insist that they are exercising their freedom of choice by being exactly in the middle as determine by everyone else and not at all by them. It is kind of humorous at one level. 

But just as such sharp and arbitrary boundaries in artificially produced goods mean clashes are more common, so too in human societies, when there is a group that insists everyone be exactly like them and, at the same time, insist that they are expressing their freedom, clashes are inevitable. Harmony and truth are no longer conceived of as being desirable. When people reject the resolution of conflict via agreed upon rules of law, what results is inevitably chaos and death. It is almost the polar opposite of Life. 

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Some epidemiologists think the various recent explosion in the variety of pollutants that we are all subject to has resulted in a much higher incidence of auto-immune diseases and allergies. The immune system sees so many different invaders, it has trouble distinguishing real threats (streptococcus, covid, cancer cells) from imaginary ones (peanut oil, cat dander, tree pollen). 

In similar fashion, people stuck on a thin sliver of what they feel is “normal” feel assailed from all sides. They can no longer distinguish real threats (COVID 19, Climate catastrophes, racial inequities) from imaginary ones (chip implantation via needles, Medicare for all, mask mandates). Clash. Clash. Clash. No “Simplicity and inner calm.” 

But from their perspective, there would be “Simplicity and inner calm” if only everyone were just like them! They will deny this, when put so baldly, but that is essentially what they strive toward.

There can be many such factions, all with different rigid and implacable beliefs or only two (Right/Left; Catholic/Protestant; Striders/Walkers) or really, only one. It only takes one faction to reject all connection to truth in order to destroy simplicity and inner calm — even though, ironically, that is what they are actually trying to achieve. 

Moving from societal beauty to user interfaces, for the most part, I would have to say most UIs lack simplicity and inner calm. They seem to be splattered with functions and features everywhere. This is not surprising since most product managers believe that sales will be greater with more functions and features. 

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When I use pages, I would say my user experience is mainly one of simplicity and inner calm. That mainly comes from the fact that my attention is almost entirely on writing and I ignore everything else the interface offers “around the edges” of my vision. Sometimes, something untoward happens and the “harmony” of my environment is temporarily destroyed. Then, I have to stop writing and pop out to the interface level in order to diagnose and fix the problem. Once I do that and return to writing, I again feel “simplicity and inner calm.”

On much rarer occasions, I will wish to do something “unusual”; e.g., I might want to put a table in the text to illustrate a point. Then, before I can word on the task at hand — creating the proper table — I must first search for the proper functionality. Since I do not typically do this, I am like the creature in the forest suddenly alerted to the presence of possible “predators” (such as accidentally destroying my file). 

I have found very few UI’s that, in and of themselves, are conducive to feelings of simplicity and inner calm on first use. I have often come to feel that way fairly quickly after I become conversant with the basic functions. 

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We evolved for millions of years to resonate with the simplicity and inner calm of peaceful natural settings. It’s not surprising that it would be difficult to reproduce that feelings with an artificial interface. But familiarity does move us in that direction. When I glance at the toolbar across the top of the “Pages” page, e.g., I see a set of pull-down menus. I don’t recall exactly how the entire menu structure is laid out, but I do know how to use it and explore it. This familiarity, in and of itself, helps me feel more serene, more secure, safer. 

Although I am very interested in seeing new ideas in UI, I am more likely to use a different sort of UI if I am seeing a completely new kind of functionality or access to new kinds of data. I would be far less interested in trying a completely new UI for writing, say, or an application that had the same features and functions as twitter but with a completely different UI. 

Sometimes, even radicals are conservative. 

If you wanted to design something that evoked simplicity and inner calm, would you yourself want to be in such a state while you were designing? Would that help or hinder you? Or, perhaps you would use the design experience itself to force yourself to experience simplicity and inner calm. Do you have any examples of a UI with simplicity and inner calm? I don’t refer here to an application whose sole purpose is to guide you through meditation. There are surely many things available whose content is meant to evoke simplicity and inner calm. But are there UI’s which, in and of themselves, evoke simplicity and inner calm? 

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Ah wilderness

Comes the reign

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