Close-Up: Creative Q&A - Why simplicity is key to 21st century advertising

"An evangelist for simplicity", John Maeda explains that humanisation is essential in the post-digital world.

To those who know him, John Maeda is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a highly respected digital thinker, as well as a world-renowned graphic designer, visual artist and computer scientist. For those who don't, rest assured that he is all of this and more.

The boy who grew up in a Japanese Tofu factory was named as one of the 21 most important people of the 21st century by Esquire. He is widely credited with being the first person to use computer programming, graphic design and electronic media as a tool for expression, beauty and art, and not just for making the office work more easily.

As well as holding the E Rudge and Nancy Allen Professorship of Media Arts and Sciences (one of MIT's most prestigious honours) and running the college's highly respected physical language workshop, his art exhibitions have been displayed in galleries all over the world. Previous exhibitions have included computer-drawn images made from crisps and a working computer made entirely of people.

Maeda is now hosting his first show in London. It may sound like gobbledygook, but it is based on questioning his own ideas on digital development by renouncing the "tech-dense" digital landscape and moving it into a simplified, but increasingly active, post-digital era.

His latest book has seen him embracing and encouraging ideas of simplicity as the digital landscape becomes more complex.

During his brief tour of the UK, Maeda took time out to explain these ideas to listeners at the Golden Square HQ of M&C Saatchi.

Graham Fink, M&C's executive creative director, says: "In this digital age, we are assaulted by more of everything - more choice, more technology, more questions, more answers - more, more, more. Brutal simplicity is the only way we can navigate this sea of abundance. Maeda is an evangelist for simplicity in the post-digital world."

Maeda's extremely visual presentation emphasised his ideas on complexity and simplicity in the consumer-company relationship, the post-digital landscape and the humanisation of technology.

Campaign grabbed a few minutes of his time to see if he could expand his ideas and experience to the advertising world.

- You talk a lot about post-digital. What does this mean to you?

"I've been using computers for close to 30 years now, and have felt the rise and rush of the 'digital age'. Maybe I'm a bit jaded now, or just plain tired, and I'm anxious to see what may come after the computing revolution. My sense is that it has something to do with going a bit backwards - to a world that is less technological, more human."

- How will it affect the changing advertising landscape - from the 30-second TV ad to digital media?

"You can look at how technology has disrupted existing media channels as one example. In some cases, television or newspaper advertising has become irrelevant, with things such as real-time channels to consumers like YouTube, or else simply Google's approach to online ads. We live in a super-mediated world where the previous platforms are in a situation of turmoil."

- How can agencies embrace digital?

"As long as there is a message that needs to be delivered to consumers, advertising will equal revenue for the media industry. However, in the post-digital age, there is room for new agencies to realise higher standards in the art of advertising."

- How does post-digital fit into your theories on simplicity?

"My ideas of simplicity are quite simple: that we live in a 'hi-tech' world, and don't necessarily want to go 'lo-tech'. Thus, rather than be hi-tech or lo-tech, simplicity is about being 'less-tech', which is basically the art and science of the 'just enough'."

- Your thoughts on humanisation are also very interesting. Why is there a need for humanisation, and what does it constitute?

"Humanisation is necessary as a way to counteract the continuing rationalisation of our global society in the simplistic terms of ROI. There needs to be a different measure and value to return on feeling that connects companies with their consumers. And it has to be real, and not just spin."

- How can advertising use this humanisation to use the digital landscape to the best effect?

"By approaching advertising as a more humane discipline, instead of the dry 'monitor, measure, monetise' paradigm of the Web 2.0 world. Choosing the right technologies, combined with a truthful message, and implemented with humour, beauty, and discipline - this is post-digital advertising."

- How can brands use this humanisation?

"They can be less about the technical aspects and completely about the emotional aspects."

- How do your ideas on consumer simplicity and company complexity relate to advertising?

"Simplicity relates to many things. After the publication of my book, The Laws of Simplicity, I have been contacted by people from every imaginable walk of life. There is much relevance to simplicity today, and advertisers need to see this."

- How can agencies use this desire for simplicity in the consumer to push a brand's product?

"By being truthful. Consider the eighth Law of Simplicity: trust. In simplicity we trust. In the post- digital age, false advertising is no longer possible. The long tail governs our notions of truth in the age of the web."

- Do consumers look for simplicity in advertising, whether on- or offline?

"Consumers love complexity; consumers love simplicity. They want complexity when it's an enjoyable sort of complexity - like a rich flavour in a delicious meal; they want simplicity when their phone is ringing and are not sure what button to press. Simplicity in advertising must address the context (the sixth Law of Simplicity) to understand whether simplicity or complexity might be the best fit."

- Could brands be editors? Could they be islands of certainty in an uncertain digital world?

"Brands are editors. Perhaps the challenge of brand-makers in the next decade is to impose upon product/experience manufacturers to simply make better products. This, of course, is not at all simple."

- Is there a lack of creativity at board level? Why is creativity, and its teaching, important?

"Creativity is everywhere. Whether it be the taxi driver who takes you to the airport, or the computer programme that misbehaves while you're sending an e-mail. Creativity is less existent when risks and responsibilities are high. Thus, at board level, being creative is not usually possible, because creativity normally equates 99 per cent of the time to failure (the ninth Law of Simplicity). Today, it's important to teach the value of failure - to feel it at small and large levels of intensity. Only those who are unafraid of failure are ever truly creative."