John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity


28/04/08 – Excerpts from, and notes on, John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life (2006). For more information visit the website.

Simplicity = Sanity

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

“[...] to understand the meaning of life as a humanist technologist.” (iii)

-simplicity is a growth industry (pp. iv, 11, and 45)

“I originally conceived of this book as a sort of simplicity 101, to give readers an understanding of the foundation of simplicity as it relates to design, technology, business, and life. But now I see that a foundation can wait [...], and [...] a framework will suffice [...].” (v)

“There are three flavors of simplicity discussed here, where the successive set of three Laws (1 to 3, 4 to 6, 7 to 9) correspond to increasingly complicated conditions of simplicity: basic, intermediate, and deep.” (vi)

Law 1 Reduce

The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.

How simple can you make it? <—> How complex does it have to be?

SHE: Shrink, Hide, Embody

“Simplicity is about the unexpected pleasure derived from what is likely to be insignificant and would otherwise go unnoticed.” (2)

“Lessening the inevitable complicating blow of these technologies [nanotechnology, etc.], by way of ‘Shrink’ may seem like a form of deception, which it is. But anything that can make the medicine of complexity go down easier is a form of simplicity, even when it is an act of deceit.” (5)

“But there might be no better example of the ‘Hide’ method than today’s computer interfaces.” (6)

“‘Shrink-ing’ an object lowers expectations, and the hiding of complexities allows the owner to manage the expectations himself. Technology creates the problem of complexity, but also affords new materials and methods for the design of our relationship with complexities that shall only continue to multiply. ” (6/7)

“Lessen what you can and conceal everything else without losing the sense of inherent value.” (9)

Law 2 Organize

Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.

“‘What goes with what?’” (12)

SLIP: Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritize

Pareto Principle: assume that in any given bin of data, generally 80% can be managed at lower priority and 20% requires the highest level (14)

“The relevance of the tab key to the concept of organization is that it is the one key on the keyboard that is designed to make information simpler.” (16)

“The plain, unadorned horizontal and vertical gridding of information lacks sex appeal, but it is the one shure think in the vocabulary of graphic design.” (17)

“In both perceiving and visually representing the natural organization of objects, we are supported by the mind’s powerful ability to detect and form patterns [gestalt].” (ibid.)

“Groups are good; too many groups are bad because they conteract 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.” (21)

Law 3 Time

Savings in time feel like simplicity.

“When any interaction with products or service providers happens quickly, we attribute this efficiency to the perceived simplicity of experience.” (23)

“‘SHE’ says that we can realize the perception of reduction through shrinking and hiding, and can also makeup for what is lost by embodying what is most important in subtle ways.” (24)

“Letting someone else make the unimportant choices for us can be a sound coping strategy [ex. Ipod Shuffle].” (26)

“Telling people how much time they have left to wait is a humane practice that is becoming more popular.” (28)

“Time can be embodied through a more deceptive approach -using ‘styling’ to create the illusion of motion and speed.” (29)

“Computers today use many of the swoopy styling cues from the automotive industry to enhance the image of speed.” (ibid.)

“Saving time is thus the tradeoff between the quantitatively fast versus the qualitatively fast:

How can you make the wait shorter? <—> How can you make the wait more tolerable?” (31)

Law 4 Learn

Knowledge makes everything simpler.

BRAIN: Basics are the beginning; Repeat yourself often; Avoid creating desperation; Inspire with examples; Never forget to repeat yourself.

“Feeling safe (by avoiding desperation), feeling confident (by mastering the basics), and feeling instinctive (by conditioning through repetitition) all satisfy rational needs. Inspiration from others serves a higher goal that, at least for me, is the true reward.” (38)

Relate – Translate – Surprise

“The best designers marry function with form to create intuitive experiences that we understand immediately -no lessons (or cursing) needed. Good design relies to some extent on the ability to instill a sense of instant familiarity.” (39)

“Metaphors serve to ‘Relate-Translate’ a key concept, but the ‘Surprise’ can be undesirable when the metaphor doesn’t work.” (40)

“Metaphors are uselful platforms for transferring a large body o f existing knowledge form one context to another with minimal, often imperceptible, effort on the part of the person crossing the conceptual bridge.” (41)

Law 5 Differences

Simplicity and complexity need each other.

“[...] establishing a feeling of simplicity in design requires making complexity consciously available in some explicit form.” (46)

“Variety tends to keep our attention when the rhythm of difference captivates.” (51)

Law 6 Context

What lies at the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.

“That which appears to be of immediate relevance may not be nearly as important compared to everything else around.” (54)

“If given an empty space or any extra room, technologists would invent something to fill the expanse; similarly, business people would not want to pass up a potential lost opportunity. On the other hand, a designer would choose to doe their best to preserve the emptiness because of their perspective that nothing is an important something. The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention on what remains. ” (56)

“Being attuned to what surrounds us in the ambient environment can sometimes help us manage what’s immediately in front of us. Synthesizing the ambient experience of simplicity requires attention to everything that seemingly does not matter.” (59)

How directed can I stand to feel <—>How directionless can I afford to be? (60)

“Ample incorporation of empty space removes the need for a specific bridge between foreground and background because the navigation is implicit -you can’t get lost.” (61)

Law 7 Emotion

More emotions are better than less.

“I find it odd that in the long history of typeset text going back to Gutenberg that this invention [i.e., smileys] had not happened sooner.” (65)

“Why have smileys evolved? Why does the textual medium need such baroque flourishes? Because of the human need to better express emotion -to capture the nuances of communication that we take for granted in speech.” (ibid.)

“Japan’s rich tradition of almost perfectly crafted artifacts of wood and clay seems built on the same design principles as modernism. However a hidden facet of Japanese design is this animistic theme.” (69)

Aichaku (ahy-chaw-koo) is the Japanese term for the sense of attachment one can feel for an artifact. [...It] describes a deeper kind of emotinal attachment that person can feel for an object. It is a kind of symbiotic love for an object that deserves affection not for what it does, but for what it is.” (ibid.)

“While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.” (70)

“Achieving clarity isn’t difficult. [...] The true challenge is achieving comfort.” (71)

“Emotional intelligence is now considered an important facet of leaders today, and the expression of emotion is no longer considered a weakness but a desirable human trait to which everyone can immediately relate.” (ibid.)

Law 8 Trust

In simplicity we trust.

“[...] is the risk of placing trust in the devices around you worth the simplicity gained?” (74)

“Trusting in a power greater than our own is a custom that is ingrained from birth when the adults that care for us provide the ultimate experience of simplicity.” (79)

-master vs. undo

How much do you need to know about a system? <—> How much does the system know about you? (81)

Law 9 Failure

Some things can never be made simple.

“[...] the sixth Law doesn’t suggest a path of direct neglect, but instead advocates concentrating on the invisible chasm that bridges the foreground task and its background context.” (86)

Law 10 The One

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

Key 1 Away: More appears like less by simply moving it far, far away.

-’Software as a service’ = applications running remotely

“[...] an experience is made simpler by keeping the result local, and moving the actual work to a far away location.” (91)

Key 2 Open: Openness simplifies complexity.

-’open-source’ (open blueprints) and APIs (open functionality)

“With an open system, the power of the many can outweigh the power of the few.” (94)

Key 3 Power: Use less, gain more.

“Electronic devices can never be truly simple unless they are freed from their dependence on power.” (96)


Technology and life only become complex if you let it be so.

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Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
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