In Defense of Complexity


The current vogue for simplicity in brand design is evident all around us, as marketers streamline their portfolios, rationalize SKUs, and redesign packages. Design awards are routinely granted, and peer respect is accorded to all those visually arresting, utterly simple brands so frequently featured in the design “must-reads:” The Dieline, Communication Arts, or any of various AIGA publications. Much has been written on the subject; indeed, this author recently posted a piece on The Dieline asserting that “Simplicity Rules.” 

That’s all well and good. 

But to strike a slightly contrarian stance, it’s not always so simple. And it MAY not always be so desirable, either.         

Before going on, let’s look for examples of simplicity and complexity outside the world of brands and packages, since in the end, the broader culture is the canvas on which our brands are painted.  

In music... “simple” might be a Shaker melody. Or a child’s lullaby. And complex? Mahler’s First Symphony is far from simple. Similarly Beethoven’s Ninth, with its universally-loved “Ode to Joy” and its extra-large orchestration, complete with full chorus. Is a Shaker tune objectively better for its simplicity? 

Is a haiku superior to a sonnet? Are Aesop’s simple fables better than Proust? 


In architecture, clarity of form and bold expression are self-evidently desirable. But which is “better”… the Pyramid of Cheops or Philip Johnson’s “Glass House,” both of which are based on bold, simple geometry? Or Chartres’ much-loved cathedral –– intricate, detailed, awe-inspiring, though anything-but-simple? Of course, none of these is objectively “better” than the others; just different. They were created in different cultural milieux, and served different purposes, with different objectives, different means.  

Further, in music, architecture, and indeed in almost all creative disciplines, there are gloriously crafted examples of works that are simple in concept even while being complex in execution. This notion leads us to draw a distinction between complexity and complication... where complexity is neither good nor bad (it depends on the situation and the goals), but where complication is generally not-so-good. 

So how does this all relate to package design?

For the thoughtful marketer or designer, there clearly are times that simplicity –– executional simplicity, that is –– is not enough. Master brand portfolios with numerous segments, sub-brands, flankers, range extensions, consumer targets, and benefit clusters simply cannot achieve the same sort of single-minded visual expression as, say, the wonderfully paradigm-breaking ‘Help Remedies’ for its healthcare products. These kinds of visually elegant solutions are sometimes inappropriate for the category-leading brand portfolios of major FMCG marketers like Unilever, ConAgra, or P&G. Communication challenges faced by the big “category captains” sometimes demand complex executions to fully convey a nuanced, layered, precise message… and to offer the sort of robust information architecture that will support large and multifaceted brand plans. 

Help Remedies

Starbucks offers another example. Its design ethos is decidedly varied, with an abundance of design styles, product “looks” and graphic approaches across in-store graphics, product packages, and more... but all are guided by a consistent brand attitude and supportive of the brand meaning. Notwithstanding some recent business stumbles of late, Starbucks is an exemplar of a highly nuanced, varied, complex expression of a clearly defined brand. 

In these cases, it could be wrong to seek brevity or simplicity for their own merits. Indeed, simplicity without meaning is... simplistic! Reaching once again into the world of music for insight, one of the best-known scenes in “Amadeus” offers a useful metaphor. In it, the emperor critiques Mozart’s composition on length. “Just cut a few notes,” he commands. (Clients may ruefully recognize the sentiment). Mozart’s incredulously witty retort: “Which ‘few notes’ did you have in mind, Majesty?” Marketers should take note (so to speak). While spare, sparse, and elegant may be aesthetically pleasing, sometimes you need more “notes” than others. 

So we can see that single-mindedness and clarity in concept are often desirable in today’s brand-saturated world. That does not mean, however, that we should uncritically pursue minimalism and reductionism in brand strategies and in design expression. The author Matthew Frederick explores these notions in his book “101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.” He discusses what he calls “Three Levels of Knowing:” 

SIMPLICITY is the worldview seen through a child’s eyes, or those of an uninformed adult; someone who is engaged mostly in his own experience and naively unaware of what lies beneath the surface of the here-and-now. 

COMPLEXITY is the ordinary, common, typical adult worldview. There’s an awareness of the complexity of life, though without a good ability to find clarifying patterns and connections... this is the state that leads to complication! 

INFORMED SIMPLICITY is an enlightened perspective on reality –– using the skills of finding the patterns within complexity, the designer then brings “order out of chaos” and creates something powerful, enduring and robust.  

This more nuanced, complex approach –– written for designers of buildings –– is equally instructive for designers of brands. For FMCG marketers, and the package designers who counsel them, “Informed Simplicity” is something to consider. Or, as Albert Einstein famously noted: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” 


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In Defense of Complexity


Michael Coleman, Managing Director in Anthem Worldwide’s Chicago office

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Michael Coleman is Managing Director in Anthem Worldwide’s Chicago office, where he leads branding engagements for FMCG and retail clients including Coca-Cola, ConAgra, True Value, Kimberly-Clark, and many more. He speaks frequently on branding and marketing issues at industry conferences, and has written extensively on topics of interest to brand owners. 

Anthem Worldwide, a Schawk Strategic Design Company, is an integrated global network that provides innovative solutions to articulate, unify and manage brand impact. Anthem creates compelling brand experiences by aligning its strategic, creative and executional talent worldwide with the business needs of companies seeking a competitive advantage. Anthem offers a full range of branding and design services to our clients including Campbell’s, Coca-Cola, E-Mart, Foster’s, General Electric, Hbc, Kimberly-Clark, Microsoft, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Revlon, Safeway and Unilever. With our network of world-class design professionals in 13 cities, Anthem is presently located in Chicago, Cincinnati, Düsseldorf, Hilversum (The Netherlands), London, Melbourne, New Jersey, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, Toronto, and York (U.K.) 

For more information on Anthem, please visit

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