Revisiting John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity

Readers:John Maeda

I have been thinking a lot lately about ways to not only simplify my life, but also to simplify how I do my work. This led me to revisit John Maeda’s (photo, right) seminal book, The Laws of Simplicity; a 100 pages or so book about simplicity. This is one of the best books in the world of design and I highly recommend you acquire a copy and read it.

In the interim, I will provide a brief summary of excerpts from Mr. Maeda’s book.

Yours in simplicity,


The Laws of Simplicity

Law 1: Reduce

The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
The easiest way to simplify a system is to remove functionality. A DVD player, for example, has too many buttons if all you want to do is play a movie. A solution could be to remove the buttons for Rewind, Forward, Eject, and so forth until only one button remains: Play.
But what if you want to replay a favorite scene? Or pause the movie while you take that all-important bathroom break? The fundamental question is, where’s the balance between simplicity and complexity?
On the one hand, you want a product or service to be easy to use; on the other hand you want it to do everything that a person might want it to do.

The process of reaching an ideal state of simplicity can be truly complex, so allow me to simplify it for you. The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.

Law 2: Organize

Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
The home is usually the first battleground that comes to mind when facing the daily challenge of managing complexity. Stuff just seems to multiply. There are three consistent strategies for achieving simplicity in the living realm: 1) buy a bigger house, 2) put everything you don’t really need into storage, or 3) organize your existing assets in a systematic fashion.

These typical solutions have mixed results. At first, a larger home lowers the clutter to space ratio. But ultimately, the greater space enables more clutter. The storage route increases the amount of empty space, but it can be immediately filled in with more stuff that will need to go into storage. The final option of implementing a system takes the form of things like closet organizers, that help bring structure to the chaos as long as the organizing principles can be obeyed. I find it compelling that all three clutter-reducing industries—the real estate market, easy storage services such as Door to Door, and rational furnishing retailers like the Container Store—are booming.

Concealing the magnitude of clutter, either through spreading it out or hiding it, is a unnuanced approach that is guaranteed to work by the first Law of reduce. There are only two questions to ask in the de-complicating procedure: “What to hide?” and “Where to put it?” Without much thought and enough hands on deck, a messy room becomes free of clutter in no time, and remains so for at least a few days or a week.

However, in the long-term an effective scheme for organization is necessary to achieve definitive success in taming complexity. In other words, the more challenging question of “What goes with what?” needs to be added to the list. For instance in a closet there can be groupings of like items such as neckties, shirts, slacks, jacket, socks, and shoes. A thousand-piece wardrobe can be organized into six categories, and be dealt with at the aggregate level and achieve greater manageability. Organization makes a system of many appear fewer. Of course this will only hold if the number of groups is significantly less than the number of items to be organized.

Law 3: Time

Savings in time feel like simplicity.
The average person spends at least an hour a day waiting in line. Add to this the uncountable seconds, minutes, weeks spent waiting for something that might have no line at all.

Some of that waiting is subtle. We wait for water to come out of the faucet when we turn the knob. We wait for water on the stove to boil, and start to feel impatient. We wait for the seasons to change. Some of the waiting we do is less subtle, and can often be tense or annoying: waiting for a Web page to load, waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, or waiting for the results of a dreaded medical test.

No one likes to suffer the frustration of waiting. Thus all of us, consumers and companies alike, often try to find ways to beat the ticking hand of time. We go out of our way to find the quickest option or any other means to reduce our frustration. When any interaction with products or service providers happens quickly, we attribute this efficiency to the perceived simplicity of experience.

Achieving notable efficiencies in speed are exemplified by overnight delivery services like FedEx and even the ordering process for a McDonald’s hamburger. When forced to wait, life seems unnecessarily complex. Savings in time feel like simplicity. And we are thankfully loyal when it happens, which is rare.

Law 4: Learn

Knowledge makes everything simpler.
Operating a screw is deceptively simple. Just mate the grooves atop the screw’s head to the appropriate tip—slotted or Phillips—of a screwdriver. What happens next is not as simple, as you may have noted while observing a child or a woefully sheltered adult turning the screwdriver in the wrong direction.

My children remember this rule through a mnemonic taught by my spouse, “righty tighty, lefty loosy.” Personally I use the analogy of a clock, and map the clockwise motion of the hands to the positive penetration curve of the screw. Both methods are subject to a second layer of knowledge: knowing right versus left, or knowing what direction the hands of a clock turn.

Thus operating a screw is not as simple as it appears. And it’s such an apparently simple object!

So while the screw is a simple design, you need to know which way to turn it. Knowledge makes everything simpler . This is true for any object, no matter how difficult. The problem with taking time to learn a task is that you often feel you are wasting time, a violation of the third Law of time. We are well aware of the dive-in-head-first approach—”I don’t need the instructions, let me just do it.” But in fact this method often takes longer than following the directions in the manual.

Law 5: Differences

Simplicity and complexity need each other.

Nobody wants to eat only dessert. Even a child that is allowed to eat ice cream three meals a day will eventually tire his sweet tooth. By the same token, nobody wants to have only simplicity. Without the counterpoint of complexity, we could not recognize simplicity when we see it. Our eyes and senses thrive, and sometimes recoil, whenever we experience differences.

Acknowledging contrast helps to identify qualities that we desire–which are often subject to change. I don’t personally prefer the color pink, but I do like it as a dash of brightness in a drab sea of olive-green. The pink appears bold and vibrant as compared with its dark and muted surroundings. We know how to appreciate something better when we can compare it to something else.

Simplicity and complexity need each other. The more complexity there is in the market, the more that something simpler stands out. And because technology will only continue to grow in complexity, there is a clear economic benefit to adopting a strategy of simplicity that will help set your product apart. That said, establishing a feeling of simplicity in design requires making complexity consciously available in some explicit form. This relationship can be manifest in either the same object or experience, or in contrast with other offerings in the same category—ike the simplicity of the iPod in comparison to its more complex competitors in the MP3 player market.

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

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

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