Laws of Simplicity: Subtract the obvious, add meaning.

Image result for the laws of simplicity book
The Laws of Simplicity; John Maeda. The blog, Laws of Simplicity, is better than this summary.

Who need to read this book?

People who have the interest to simple design, technology, and life.

What did it tell me? 

Modern humans are looking for a simpler way of living. With the rapid development of technology, our world is (uncomfortably) full. These days, people not just buy, but love, designs that can make their lives simpler.

10 Laws of Simplicity

1. Reduce – “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.”

Find the balance between simplicity and complexity;

“How simple can you make it?” vs. “How complex it have to be?”

SHE (Shrink, Hide, Embody) Methods:

  • Shrink the object, make it adapt to its surrounding. A shrunken object can lower the expectations.
  • There are an incredible amount of hidden complexity (e.g., computers to cell phones, or even a microwave oven).
  • Embody the quality through tangible (e.g., materials or craftsmanship) or intangible (e.g., perceived quality, through marketing) ways.

Simpler looks will make the expectation lower. By reducing the complexity on looks, the hidden quality in a simpler product will be more appreciated. This way, products/tools that are simpler with fewer features can also be desirable to the bigger version with more features.

2. Organize – “Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.”

When there is nothing more can be simplified through SHE, the next step is simplification through a concept named SLIP (Sort, Label, Integrate, and Prioritize).

  • Sort; find the natural grouping.
  • Label; give relevant names to the group.
  • Integrate; the fewer the groups, the better.
  • Prioritize; collect the highest priority group. According to Pareto principle, 80% of the group can be managed with the low priority while only the 20% will require the highest level.

When everything seems to be important, know where to start is a critical step. Trust our powerful mind to seek, detect and form patterns.

3. Time – “Savings in time feel like simplicity.”

When forced to wait, life seems unnecessarily complex. These things can be done to simplifying the use of time:

  • Reduce time to spent on one task; choosing to care less versus caring more is the heart of living an efficient but fulfilling daily life.
  • Show the progress; humans need feedback to feel they are moving forward, e.g., showing a progress bar on computer processes.
  • The value of time; giving extra attention makes the wait worth. Providing value to the time is a matter of choosing between the two, “how to make the wait shorter?” and “how to make the wait more tolerable?”. E.g., giving out candy in the queuing line.
Image result for path to inner peace
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all” – Peter Drucker

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.

The dive-in-head-first approach often takes longer than following the directions in the manual. When you know something, you will save time.

Maeda’s holistic approach to the process of learning:

  • Basics are the beginning
  • Repeat yourself often
  • Avoid creating desperation
  • Inspire with examples
  • Never forget to repeat yourself

*I personally suggests you to look, 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Michael Starbird and Edward Burger. 

Designers use RTS (relate, translate and surprise) approach, to make our “learning” to their design easier:

  • Relate; great design relies on the ability to include a sense of instant familiarity.
  • Translate; the existing relationship then converted to tangible object or service.
  • Surprise; provide a little surprise to make customer’s efforts worthwhile.

5.    Differences – “Simplicity and complexity need each other.”

Without complexity, people will not appreciate simplicity. The more complexity there is in the market, the more that something simpler stands out. Current technology will often time developed with complexity. Thus there is a clear economic benefit for those who can adopt the strategy of simplicity, and make it as a unique differentiation.

6. Context – “What lies in the periphery of simplicity is not peripheral.”

Narrowness and focus are essentially the same things. However, the former has a more negative connotation than the later. An athlete at the Olympic is focused, but not narrow. Yet, focusing is not always good.

Pursuing perfection usually means sacrificing everything in the background and focusing everything in the foreground. But, why we always need to be a laser beam when we also can be a lightbulb? Even when making designing things, whether it is a website or skate park, a good design will let the visitors be comfortably lost, meaning it’s not only offering one thing that is evident.

Try to answer this question and find the balance between, “how directed can I stand to feel?” and “how directionless can I afford to be?

7.    Emotion – “More emotions are better than less.”

Simplicity is not for everyone. Simple things can be associated as ugly, cheap or cold by some people. The reasons why the business of accessories for iPod exist and prosper is because first, people see accessories as a way to express themselves and second, they want to protect this fragile product.


Image result for japanese extreme simple living
A Japanese minimalist house. Will this be your living room? Some might say yes, and some might say yes, but add this, and some might just say no.

8. Trust – “In simplicity we trust.”

How comfortable are you with computers knowing how you think? On the other hand, how tolerant are you if the computer makes mistakes guessing your desire? Imagine a phone with a single button only that can guess correctly whether you want to call someone or send an email. Smarter computers, knows your name, address, and credit card number, to make your life simpler. With this abundant knowledge “saved” in a machine, what will the cost when things go wrong? Say, in simplicity we trust.

9. Failure – “Some things can never be made simple.”

When pursuing simplicity, only two outcomes will come up. First, you will make something simpler; or second, you attain knowledge to help you do so in the future.

10. The One – “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”


Three emergent technology keys that enable simplicity

  1. Away; The More appears less by simply moving in far, far away. E.g., Google’s vast networks, and database, make you don’t need massive racks of computing equipment in your house. Your experience with Google has been made simpler by keeping the result local, and the actual work far away.
  2. Open; openness simplifies complexity.  

There are thousands of Linux experts on the Net at any time that can respond to common problems such as security laws. These experts are more likely to jump into action before you’d even get to a real Microsoft employee on the phone.

3. Power; Use less, gain more.

A rechargeable battery, or any battery technology for that matter, has the guise of freedom – it seems to free you from dependence on an external power. But all power comes from somewhere and uses energy on its way to the consumer—batteries must be manufactured, ditto with solar panels, oil must be transported across great distances. The only foreseeable solution is for humanity to collectively use less energy, and to use it more wisely.”


This book was published in 2006. This summary is written in 2016. Let’s look at big companies we have now, such as Google or Tesla, they all seemed to live by these principle.


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