Those who have fostered complexity will not lead the simplicity in communications movement. It is up to the rest of us to demand clarity from companies and government to instill those values in our daily lives.
We in the brand-identity business have helped lead the simplicity in communications movement for decades, but recently people have begun to fight as never before for clarity, transparency and fairness in their dealings with business and government — becoming “simplicity warriors,” armed with social media and a healthy dose of outrage.
A landmark case was the 2011 grassroots uprising against banks’ attempt to levy new fees, such as a $5 monthly debit card fee. People noticed and began to chatter, blog and tweet about it. Molly Katchpole, 22, created an online petition that attracted 300,000 signatures within a month. Banks could not ignore the groundswell and quickly abandoned the planned fees.
This is just one example of people using their newfound power of social media to unite against unpopular corporate decisions. And, while the disappearance of brick and mortar stores is making companies appear less accessible, they are but one click away from any activist movement. Each consumer is now a member of a community of shoppers who previously were invisible to each other. But, by using social media channels, we can magnify our voices to make our displeasure, confusion, anger or praise known simultaneously.
A clamor for clarity
For this single reason, we can expect the clamor for transparency and clarity to reach a fever pitch over the next few years, with a positive impact for consumers. We’ve seen the rise of a new power base that has the numbers on its side and the capacity to bring about change, often literally overnight.
Grassroots movements are often fueled by anger and outrage, and the burgeoning simplicity movement is no exception. Surveys show that most people blame complexity for the recent economic crisis and we are coming to realize that some companies deliberately use complexity to disguise unfair, dishonest business terms. The resulting erosion of trust is accompanied by an uneasy feeling that our systems and institutions are no longer working properly.
As people conduct more of their business online, we’ve seen the rise of a new level of complexity, as witnessed by the growing outcry over user agreements. Unnerved by this situation, a colleague recently conducted a survey of her own user agreements, and within 90 minutes discovered 53 agreements totaling nearly 400 pages. A little more digging uncovered that she had entered into 34 legally-binding relationships with banks, health insurers and commercial entities. Moreover, more than half of the agreements included ‘pre-dispute arbitration’ clauses, in which she forfeited her right to sue in court.
Now under administration attack, the formation of the Consumer Fraud Protection Bureau (CFPB) in 2011 marked a watershed moment in the evolution of the simplicity movement. It has helped to initiate a national dialogue about the rights of consumers and the dangers of fine print. The CFPB has worked hard to bring greater clarity to all manner of financial transactions, from mortgages, to payday and student loans, to credit card statements. CFPB has since developed simpler forms for these transactions.
Together we can change buying habits by rewarding companies that inform rather than obfuscate. Companies can only hurt themselves when they sacrifice customer loyalty to cost-cutting. We must push public institutions to provide transparency, and petition lawmakers and regulators to demand responsibility from those who abet the complexity crisis.
In the coming years, we can expect the crisis of complexity to affect our lives more deeply and in more ways. One reason is an aging population that has a critical need for clarity in the face of complex technology and a growing deluge of information. We can all expect to be drowning in data as the demand for greater transparency and disclosure provides us with the information we’ve requested.
So, while we support calls for greater disclosure, we must remember that none of this will help unless we insist that the information disclosed is relevant, streamlined, well organized, designed for greater clarity, supported by relevant examples and written in plain English.
Brand identity pioneer and the creator of the concept of “brand voice,” Alan Siegel has devoted his career to helping organizations achieve greater recognition and relevance. In 2011, Alan created Siegelvision, a company focused on solving tough branding and communications problems for purpose-driven organizations.