Clarification > Simplification
Recently, I was sitting with Richard Wurman previewing an animation created in our office which described the process of manufacturing a new RNAi drug. It was a stellar accomplishment by the design team that produced it, in particular the senior creative director, Heather Furman, who has an appetite and an aptitude for translating highly complex material into graphics and animation that mere mortals can totally understand. She is a rock star at this.
But first about RNAi (ably described for The Medicines Company by Scott Johnson). RNA interference (RNAi) is a natural phenomenon discovered by Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, for which they were awarded The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2006. RNAi occurs when a unique RNA sequence (a so-called short-interfering or siRNA) specifically inhibits the production of a single protein – in the case Heather was working with, a protein called PCSK9. To accomplish this inhibition, the siRNA sequence activates the cell’s biochemical machinery to silence the genetic message that instructs protein production.
Using this technology (invented by and licensed from Alnylam), The Medicines Company (MDCO) created a synthetic siRNA – a drug compound now called inclisiran – to specifically inhibit production of PCSK9, a key protein that controls LDL-C levels (that is the bad cholesterol). MDCO’s patented biochemical modifications of inclisiran enhance its potency, stability and durability and insure its delivery specifically to liver cells where LDL-C is regulated. Clinical studies and models performed to date have shown that an injection of inclisiran, given once or twice a year, causes durable ~50% reduction of LDL-C safely. This is truly a breakthrough because it means that with a once or twice a year injection, the number one killer in the world, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, could be neutralized in most who might die of the disease.
What Heather and her team – Kevin Braine and Diana Backer – were trying to illustrate, taking their instruction from the brilliant head of manufacturing at MDCO, John Richards, was the highly complex process of manufacturing this drug at a scale never before attempted. The diagram alone began on a 20-foot section of wall covered with molecular diagrams and descriptions of processes from RNA strands to stripping to annealing to ultimately a prefilled syringe ready for delivery to a patient.
Now to the point of our story. In creating the diagram, we described the animation as a simplification of the process. Richard pointed out that in fact our goal was hardly simplification – it was clarification. So why does this matter? Same thing, right? Perhaps in Richard’s intuitive reaction to our deployment of language he was actually making a really an important distinction. A distinction that we should all be more sensitive to than perhaps we are.
To simplify is to strip away complexity. A quick look online for a simple definition: “to make less complex or complicated; make plainer or easier”. I was struck by ‘make…easier’. Don’t we want everything to be ‘easier’? I am reminded of Nicholas Carr’s admonition in The Shallows that we are training our brains away from contemplation that is long, deep and hard. Yet we live in a world of immense complexity. As we explore and discover at a faster pace, as knowledge becomes increasingly specialized, we lose our ability to integrate more and more knowledge in order to see patterns which can guide our critical thinking.
So about clarification (from the same simplified internet dictionary): “to make (an idea, statement, etc.) clear or intelligible; to free from ambiguity ”. We would certainly have fallen short of our best intentions if we had simplified the process. The challenge we set for ourselves – and that I believe designers are uniquely qualified to take up – was to distill the 218 steps and pull to the surface what was most important to understand, to divine the intricate pattern that could be communicated and design the elements that would carry the message. I agree with Richard. I think the struggle for clarification is worthy of a life’s work. I also think that if, as a society, we valued clarification, we might value truth and then we would be getting somewhere worthy of the journey.
Please see full video below: