I got into a conversation at work about something that is, intuitively, a simple topic but is actually complex. This got me thinking.

You can think of this as a square, on one axis is perceived complexity, on the other is real complexity.

Some things are obvious. If you think about quantum physics you think it’s complex and, yes, it really and truly is complex once you dive down the rabbit hole.

On the other end, you have a phrase like “it’s as easy as falling off a log.” Unless you start delving into the nature of gravity or how the log grew, yes it seems simple, and no doubt it’s as simple as it sounds.”

The interesting things are where the perception is different from reality.

Take, for instance, the cooking of a French tarragon omelet. This sounds devilishly complicated, but the reality is that it’s not hard at all. It’s just four ingredients and consists mainly of beating the life out of the eggs and then frying them while moving them the whole time. The other three ingredients are butter (for frying), tarragon (for the tarragon) and salt.

Then you have other things that seem simple but aren’t. Color.

I work making t-shirts. Well, my group does at least. Color is important when printing anything and apparel is no exception. When growing up, you think about colors with the crayons you use. You start out with the standard eight or 16 colors and move up to the 64-color pack with the built-in sharpener.

It seems simple. Red. Yellow. Blue. Green.

But how do you define red? What is red? How does the human eye function? How can people agree on how to define color.

You have something which seems simple, but a topic on which countless of people have spent entire careers on.

Think about sRBG color, Adobe RGB, CMYK, Lab, CIE XYZ, Pantone, ProPhoto, Hexachrome, and a whole host of other systems.

What is color? What is a photon? How are they related?

Most colors can be represented by a certain wavelength of light. Purple isn’t a single wavelength (as compared to violet, which is, but that’s another story) Then you have how your eye perceives color, which isn’t as simple as it seems. Just dive down the rabbit hole for “impossible colors” to see it yourself.

It’s all a rat’s nest once you look a single layer down… the fact that it’s unexpected is really what catches people out. It’s a topic that seems simple, but unless you know what to look for, you don’t see the complexity that lies within.