Webster’s dictionary defines ‘simple’ as free from guile or vanity, or lacking in expertise. And ‘effective’ as producing a desired effect. Yet, the phrase ‘simple, yet effective’ manages to crop up very often in reviews of great set designs. Is that because it repeatedly happened to be the best description? Or, much like starting with ‘Webster’s Dictionary defines’, is it in fact a lazy writing trope?
‘Simple, yet effective’ has been on the collective designer radar for many years, regularly raising the hackles of people lent over cutting matts everywhere.
So what, pray tell, is the actual meaning behind these three words that I now have tattooed across my lower back? The impulse is nice, the gesture of them is good; the point being – it worked. The design didn’t get in the way, didn’t slow down the action, didn’t try too hard. That it told the story. Conceptually or literally, minimalist or maximalist, realistic or abstract, it worked.
I remember being told “good design is design you don’t notice” – ie stop showing off. If that is the case, get a boring chair, get an understated dress, get a bog-standard tree. If good design is based purely on not pulling focus, on being ‘simple yet effective’ then I suggest boringness all round. Cheers.
But that’s not quite what reviewers mean by this phrase. What they mean is ‘good’. And they’ve found a way to say it which is simple, yet… no, actually, it’s just simple.
When I’m designing, I’m thinking about a lot of things. The logistics of what you need to get through the scene, the maths of making it fit, the physics of how to get ‘on’ and ‘off’ stage. I’m also thinking about every relevant connotation or reference in my head and how I can best draw on those.
I’m dealing in feelings and how best to evoke them in you. How does grief effect the way we see the world? What does being in love look like? Are all our memories in Technicolor?
And even more than that, how do you give a space soul? With marks on the wall to show children growing? With an eye for golden triangles à la classical painting composition? With coffee stains? With a complete void?
This play has been living in my brain for six months, with all the questions above answered, and every millimetre memorised; and now you’ve opened the hatch on our painstaking world and deemed it: ‘Simple, yet effective.’ As if all we were going for, in every aspect, is effortlessness.
Reviews have a word count, and there’s a lot of people and aspects to cover. And, sometimes the design might not move you, or be notable in any other way. But when it has been, and can be applied to set designs which couldn’t be more different, more complex or more specific, I don’t think requesting a third adjective is too much to ask.
Grace Smart is an award-winning theatre designer. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/grace-smart