Back to the bookshelf

The Laws of Simplicity (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)

John Maeda

How strongly I recommend it: 5/10 Last read: May 13, 2018

Big ideas, but very vague. I'm not a fan of books that try to tackle concepts like simplicity without putting in the work to truly cover it well. The irony if this book is the author forgot one of his own “laws” and didn’t make strip out all the rambley, barely connected thoughts to make the content clear. I might recommend this book to someone who just wants a designer-y book that’s easy reading. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who actually wants to learn design. There’s much better books to spend your time on. Otherwise, it’s a good book if you’re stuck at the airport with a dead kindle and this is the only design book you could find in the airport bookstore.

Buy on Amazon

My notes and highlights:

Technology has made our lives more full, yet at the same time we’ve become uncomfortably “full.”

TEN LAWS

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

THREE KEYS

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

REDUCE The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.

The easiest way to simplify a system is to remove functionality.

The fundamental question is, where’s the balance between simplicity and complexity?

The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.

When it is possible to reduce a system’s functionality without significant penalty, true simplification is realized. When everything that can be removed is gone, a second battery of methods can be employed. I call these methods SHE: SHRINK, HIDE, EMBODY.

SHE: SHRINK

When a small, unassuming object exceeds our expectations, we are not only surprised but pleased.

The smaller the object, the more forgiving we can be when it misbehaves.

Any design that incorporates lightness and thinness conveys the impression of being smaller, lesser, and humbler.

SHE: HIDE

When all features that can be removed have been, and a product has been made slim, light, and thin, it’s time for the second method: HIDE the complexity through brute-force methods.

SHE: EMBODY

EMBODY-ing quality is primarily a business decision, more than one of design or technology.

ORGANIZE Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.

Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.

SLIP: SORT, LABEL, INTEGRATE, PRIORITIZE

SORT: Write down on small post-it notes each datum to be SLIP-ped. Move them around on a flat surface to find the natural groupings.

LABEL: Each group deserves a relevant name. If a name cannot be decided upon, an arbitrary code can be assigned such as a letter, number, or color.

INTEGRATE: Whenever possible, integrate groups that appear significantly like each other.

PRIORITIZE: Finally collect the highest priority items into a single set to ensure that they receive the most attention.

[Josh: The author is just describing information architecture but in a really abstract, sloppy way.]

Germany is arguably the country that originated the design field through its legendary Bauhaus school founded in 1919. Thus it is a little more than coincidence that the German word for design is gestaltung.

[Josh: The author doesn't dig into it but what he's describing are Gestalt Principles and they're extremely helpful for creating good layouts. Check out this article to learn more about them.]

Groups are good; too many groups are bad because they counteract the goal of grouping in the first place. Blurred groupings are powerful because they can appear even more simple, but at the cost of becoming more abstract, less concrete.

The best designers in the world all squint when they look at something. They squint to see the forest from the trees—to find the right balance. Squint at the world. You will see more, by seeing less.

TIME Savings in time feel like simplicity.

Savings in time feel like simplicity. And we are thankfully loyal when it happens, which is rare.

When Apple used to invest in research, they conducted an experiment in which a user was presented with a task that required significant processing time. They found that when a graphical display of progress, or a “progress bar,” was shown, the user would perceive that the computer completed the task in less time than when no progress bar was shown at all.

Knowledge is comfort, and comfort lies at the heart of simplicity.

Computers today use many of the swoopy styling cues from the automotive industry to enhance the image of speed.

LEARN Knowledge makes everything simpler.

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.

Learning occurs best when there is a desire to attain specific knowledge.

BASICS are the beginning. REPEAT yourself often. AVOID creating desperation. INSPIRE with examples. NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

The first step in conveying the BASIC is to assume the position of the first-time learner.

Observing what fails to make sense to the non-expert, and then following that trail successively to the very end of the knowledge chain is the critical path to success.

The easiest way to learn the basics is to teach the basics yourself.

AVOID-ing desperation is something to target when learning is concerned.

Good design relies to some extent on the ability to instill a sense of instant familiarity.

The original trash icon on the Apple Macintosh’s desktop was unrecognizable to Japanese users who had never seen a vertically-ribbed metallic trash can.

DIFFERENCES Simplicity and complexity need each other.

Without the counterpoint of complexity, we could not recognize simplicity when we see it.

CONTEXT What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.

Striving for excellence usually entails the sacrifice of everything in the background for the sake of attending to the all-important fore-ground.

The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention on what remains. More white space means that less information is presented. In turn, proportionately more attention shall be paid to that which is made less available. When there is less, we appreciate everything much more.

Ambience is the proverbial “secret sauce” to any great meal or memorable interaction.

EMOTION More emotions are better than less.

Simplicity can be considered ugly.

Aichaku (ahy-chaw-koo) is the Japanese term for the sense of attachment one can feel for an artifact.

TRUST In simplicity we trust.

Embrace undo as a rational partner in maintaining the many complex relationships with the objects in your environment.

FAILURE Some things can never be made simple.