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The Laws of Simplicity, why simpler is just better! February 5, 2012

Posted by andrease in Uncategorized.

“The Laws of Simplicity” is a book written by a MIT professor named Joh Maeda. In the book he has a very clear presentation of why simpler just is better, and he lists his own ten laws of simplicity (1:Reduce, 2: Organize, 3: Time, 4: Learn, 5: Differences, 6: Context, 7: Emotion, 8: Trust, 9: Failure and 10: The One). As a way of showing that the book is a product of his own mindset, the author imposed a limit of 100 pages for himself, which again is consistent with one of his ten laws in the book: “Savings in time feels like simplicity!”, meaning that if you read a simplified book in about an hour, you feel better than you would have done spending three hours on the verbose version of the same book!

The book is, as mentioned above, written around what Maeda calls the “Ten Laws of Simplicity”, with the intention of applying them to almost any design or engineering problem in a business or technology surrounding. Maeda’s punchline is that “Simplicity=Sanity, something I as an engineer would agree completely with! In the engineering problem solving world, the catchphrase KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) goes without saying.

I will take two of these laws and go in deeper details about them before I give a conclusion on the book.

Law nr 3, Time:
Anyone who has been in the Armed Forces know about this, you spend way too much time waiting in line! But if it is that you are waiting for food in the Army, or just in the rush-traffic back and forth to work, it is still something we gladly would do whatever we could to prevent happening: “Nobody 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. Savings in time feels like simplicity, and we are thankfully loyal when it happens, which is rare”.

I believe everyone has had something like this happening:
“Some times the mundane experience of waiting can reach dramatic heights. Like when you are about to give a presentation to an audience of hundreds and you are copying a critical file over from a thumb drive to the presentation computer and everyone’s waiting for you to start.” Of course now the progress bar almost does not move at all…

One of the solutions to this problem, is according to Maeda to “shrink time”, meaning that we prepare for what is coming, by for example untie our shoes, and remove our laptop from our bag before we reach airport security. This way the line flows swifter, and we feel that we save time.

Law 10, The One:
The tenth law is a bit more cryptic, but it sort of embraces all of the other nine laws, in which Maeda says “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful!” Here Maeda approaches the problem like the bubbles in a champagne glass: “floating upward in unexpected, elegantly fluid ways”. For an engineer like myself, this still was kind of cryptic (even though I have drunk my fair share of champagne), but it helped when Maeda (in an analogy about the Japanese National Rugby Team) told them to operate based upon intuition versus intellect. As an engineer I can relate to this, simply by saying that doing everything by the book, or by numbers (as engineers are indeed very good at) might not always solve the problem. Sometimes the process require more of a human touch to make it work.

“More appear less when moving it far, far away!”
Google is one of the pioneers within this area, and it can be seen by simply looking on their website. We all know that they are the kings of web-based search (and hence utilizes a complex network of computers and databases), but still, the GUI (graphical user interface) is so simple that you cannot do anything wrong. In Norway we have a saying that says: “you cannot see the forest for all the trees”. This example shows that you have sunk too deep in the problem, and you really should move it far, far away to be able so see the problem (in this case the forest).

“Openness simplifies complexity”
Here Maeda shows us the true danger of an open society! Uttering the words “I love you” might give a poor man more problems and emotional pain that he ever have had before in his life! But it also can give you more happiness and joy than you ever could have known.
When it comes to business, openness simplifies proprietary, something that Maeda exemplifies with the “Ruby on Rails” web frame work, which is free but has related for-pay services.

“Use less, gain more”
This phrase was more of what I would call “common sense”, where you save battery on your iPad if you use it less. Sort of easy to catch up on this one I would say, but it can be scaled up to almost whatever you want it to be. Water, power, energy and beyond. It can also be used for a resource like time, something that I myself find most precious to me and my surroundings.
We can also look at this as “my time” and “your time”, and the postulate is just as valid. In my design class, I am a student that really appreciate it when the professor is on edge, has done his homework and knows what he talks about! He is straight to the point, I learn from it, and I can go home as a happy person!

I enjoyed reading this book very much, and I will end this report by a fantastic quote:

“Ten laws, remove none, and you are left with one! When in doubt, turn to the tenth law, The One. It is simpler that way!”

I have found out that most of his book also can be found on Maeda’s own blog, “The Laws of Simplicity”. So one take-away-point from me is that if you want to save some money, you can read it here instead!