Book Notes: The Laws of Simplicity

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.

I’ve heard about John Maeda for a long time, mostly from his fame at RISD. Yet, I didn’t get to learn more about him until reading his book The Laws of Simplicity today.

John turned his understanding from life and design into 10 Laws for simplicity.

  • LAW 1 / REDUCE The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
  • LAW 2 / ORGANIZE Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
  • LAW 3 / TIME Savings in time feel like simplicity.
  • LAW 4 / LEARN Knowledge makes everything simpler.
  • LAW 5 / DIFFERENCES Simplicity and complexity need each other.
  • LAW 6 / CONTEXT What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.
  • LAW 7 / EMOTION More emotions are better than less.
  • LAW 8 / TRUST In simplicity we trust.
  • LAW 9 / FAILURE Some things can never be made simple.
  • LAW 10 / THE ONE

3 Keys to explain Law 10 further:

  • KEY 1 / AWAY More appears like less by simply moving it far, far away.
  • KEY 2 / OPEN Openness simplifies complexity.
  • KEY 3 / POWER Use less, gain more.

Overall, it’s a very philosophical book and it gets more abstract towards the end. It’s still an easy read though.

He grouped the laws in a very interesting way: LAW 1 (REDUCE) & 2 (ORGANIZE) are on the tactical side. John talks about the “how” – how you can simplify using two frameworks:

  • SHE reducing (Shrink, Hide, Embody) and
  • SLIP for organization (Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritize). Later chapters are more on people’s perception on simplicity — what does it mean by simplification, time-saving, something else? Do people see simplicity if everything is simplified?

This book definitely gave me some new perspectives — “simplicity” is not that “simple”. Different groups of people have different perceptions on simplicity — you love a product with minimalism philosophy, while your mom can find it difficult to use; To discover simplicity, you need it to contrast with complexity; Different ambience/context changes people’s perception for an object.

My favorite quotes of the book — thanks for the new perspectives:

  • Lessen what you can and conceal everything else without losing the sense of inherent value. EMBODY-ing a greater sense of quality through enhanced materials and other messaging cues is an important subtle counterbalance to SHINK-ing and HIDE-ing the directly understood aspects of a product. Design, technology, and business work in concert to realize the final decisions that will lead to how much reduction in a product is tolerable, and how much quality it will embody in spite of its reduced state of being. Small is better when SHE’d.
  • On 3 questions to ask in the de-complicating procedure: “What to hide?”, “Where to put it?”, “What goes with what?”
  • On Prioritize (of the SLIP framework): Everything is important, but knowing where to start is the critical first step.
  • The Best designers in the world all squint when they look at something. They squint to see the foret from the trees — to find the right balance. Squint at the world. You will see more, by seeing less.
  • We need all the positive reinforcement we can get in order to feel that we are moving forward. Don’t we?
  • When speeding-up a process is not an option, giving extra care to a customer makes the experience of waiting more tolerable. — Think “How can you make the wait shorter?” and “How can you make wait more tolerable?”
  • BASICS are the beginning. REPEAT yourself often. AVOID creating desperation. INSPIRE with examples. NEVER forget to repeat yourself.
  • A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.
  • The best designers marry function with form to create intuitive experiences that we understand immediately — no lessons (or cursing) needed.
  • Difficult tasks seem easier when they are “need to know” rather than “nice to know”. A course in history, mathematics, or chemistry is nice to know for a teenager, but completing driver’s education satisfies a fundamental need for autonomy. In the beginning of life we strive for independence, and at the end of life it is the same. At the core of the best rewards is this fundamental desire for freedom in thinking, living, and being. I’ve learned that the most successful product designs, whether simple, complex, rational, illogical, domestic, international, technophilic, or technophobic, are the ones that connect deeply to the greater context of learning and life.
  • Nobody wants to have only simplicity. Without the counterpoint of complexity, we could not recognize simplicity when we see it.
  • We know how to appreciate something better when we can compare it to something else.
  • I was once advised by my teacher Nicholas Negroponte to become a light bulb instead of a laser beam, at an age and time in my career when I was all focus. His point was that you can either brighten a single point with laser precision, or else use the same light to illuminate everything around you. Striving for excellence usually entails the sacrifice of everything in the background for the sake of attending to the all-important foreground.
  • “The taste of this meal is affected by the room we sit in.” … I could imagine the taste to be very different in an environment that was appointed with different dishes, table, overall decorum, and even different people. Ambience is the proverbial “secret sauce” to any great meal or memorable interaction.
  • There is an important tradeoff between being completely lost in the unknown and completely found in the familiar. Too familiar can have the positive aspect of making completely sense, which to some can seem boring; too unknown can have the negative connotations of danger, which to some can seem a thrill. Thus there is a tradeoff between being found versus lost: “How directed can I stand to feel?” (Found) vs “How directionless can I afford to be?” (Lost)
  • The best art makes your head spin with questions. Perhaps this is the fundamental distinction between pure art and pure design. While great art makes you wonder, great design makes thing clear.
  • There’s always an ROF (Return On Failure) when you try to simplify — which is to learn from your mistakes. When faced with failure, a good artist, or any other member of the creative class, leverages the unfortunate event to radically shift perspective. One man’s failed experiment in simplicity can be another man’s success as a beautiful form of complexity. Simplicity and complexity shift with subtle changes in point of view.

Other than the quotes above, I was really impressed by John’s word choices. Here are some excerpts from the book that popped such vivid images to me that I have to quote them below:

  • Although even without a wrist watch, my cell phone volunteers the current time.
  • The speed of the Web sets our expectations to now.
  • Being a professor is the easiest thing in the world — you just have to act like you know all the answers. Being a student is much harder because you not only have to wring the answers from the cryptic professor, but you also have to make sense of them.
  • Starting a book is easy, but somewhere in the middle you can be unsure of how far you are. A simple progress bar, with an X to mark the spot, can tell you exactly how far you’ve gotten, and how much more you have to go. Digital books require such displays, but for printed books like the one you hold in your hands, a quick squeeze on both left – and right-hand sides can provide your general locale.
  • Why, after people are drawn to the simplicity of a device, do they rush to accessorize it? Why, as I browse the airport gadget store while waiting for a flight, do I see so many businessmen perusing Treo cases made of metal, plastic, leather, and cloth with the intensity of my younger daughters’ choosing outfits for their Barbies? … First of all, … the successful application of SHE can instill a different kind of fear: concern for the object’s survival. … The second reason is rooted in the self-expression and in the need to balance the subzero coolness of the ideal consumer electronics gadget with a sense of human warmth.
  • My unorthodox swimming teacher did not teach us how to swim. He instead spent most of the term teaching us how to “lean back” and trust the water. I kept waiting to learn how to swim, but in the meantime became more comfortable just learning back or bending over forward in the water. A formative moment occurred when he told us to go ahead and flap our arms and feet, and suddenly I was swimming! I realized I could always swim — I just didn’t trust the water.
  • Failure happens. If not 3.5 times out of a million, then at least one time today for you or me.
  • The Japan National Rugby Team was once a mighty force that has fallen in recent years. … the team’s basic problem — the players were too predicable… the players are urged “to become like the bubbles in a glass of champagne”, floating upward in unexpected and elegantly fluid ways.

Check out John Maeda’s talk on this topic from TED Talk:

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