posted 17 Dec 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 4
The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life.
Author: John Meada
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 2006
Reviewed by Lucy McNulty
AT THE dawn of the digital age it was assumed that advancements in technology would enable our lives to become infinitely simpler. Over time, however, developments in technology encouraged a growing reliance on digital systems which escalated demand for ever faster, more intelligent and, therefore, increasingly complex systems.
The intricate technology that began to be developed required progressively more time invested in complex instruction solely to understand how the technology functioned. It became the norm for software to come accompanied with 75 megabyte instruction manuals and mobile phones with start up guides bigger than the product itself. Indeed, the obvious complexity of products was heralded as a positive and entirely necessary quality – if a product looked complex, it would surely be capable of greater things.
The emergence of the iPod, with its clean gadgetry, and Google, with its uncomplicated interface, made simplicity cool again and set in motion a rebellion against the overly complex which John Maeda’s book The Laws of Simplicity aims to continue.
“I’m partially to blame for the unrelenting stream of ‘eye candy’ littering the information landscape,” writes graphic designer and MIT Media Lab professor Maeda. “I am sorry, and for a long while I have wished to do something about it. Achieving simplicity in the digital age became a personal mission”. This “personal mission” to promote simplicity has led Maeda to develop guidelines to balancing minimalism and complexity in both our personal and professional lives, in the form of ten laws and three keys, which are the core focus of the book. Each is introduced and explained through a series of personal anecdotes and memories, abstract thoughts, acronyms and comparisons with well-known products (primarily the iPod which is referred to throughout).
The first three laws, which are based on the principles of reduction (law one), organisation (law two) and time efficiency (law three), form the foundation of what Maeda terms “basic simplicity”. They are followed by increasingly complex concepts such as the need for emotion in order to achieve real clarity (law seven), and the value of accepting failure by recognising that some things can never be simplified (law nine).
But it is to law ten, which advocates that “simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful”, that Maeda attaches the most importance to, referring to it as “THE ONE” which sums up the entire set. “When in doubt, turn to the tenth Law,” he writes. “It’s simpler that way.” He uses this all-important law to introduce three further ideas or keys which he says have “particular relevance to the subject of simplicity”.
Both laws and keys are intended as thought provoking guidelines as opposed to unyielding laws. “Like all man-made ‘laws’ they do not exist in the absolute sense – to break them is no sin,” asserts Maeda. “However you may find them useful in your own search for simplicity (and sanity) in design, technology, business and life.” Yet although Maeda’s ideas are evidently useful and could have a practical application in our everyday lives, the manner in which he delivers these ideas diminishes their effect.
Straightforward ideas that could be explained in one or two pages are dismantled and dragged out over a chapter. Acronyms, such as SHE – Simplify, Hide, Embody, SLIP – Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritize, and BRAIN – Basics, Repeat, Avoid, Inspire, Never, constantly litter the discussion and unnecessarily complicate the content. The laws themselves, occasionally seem unfinished, with intermittent repetition of concepts, some redundant ideas and a need, at times, for greater explanation of ideas which Maeda’s self-imposed and supposedly simple 100 page limit will not allow. Yet Maeda is aware of these shortcomings.
“I am the first to admit that I do not have all the answers,” he writes. “Some of my thoughts will inevitably be deemed as wrong. But my impatience embodied by the third law of TIME compels me to publish this book right now even with its unresolved flaws.”
Readers will no doubt respond to this book in terms of their own experience and preference for simplicity or complexity. Indeed, Maeda seems to welcome such conflict of opinion asserting that the book is intended as a “framework” as opposed to a definitive work. “Through my ongoing journey I’ve discovered how complex a topic simplicity is,” he writes. “I don’t pretend to have solved the puzzle”. He is open about his aim to enourage discussion on technology and the complexity it brings into our daily lives as opposed to having the final say and in this aim he suceeds. With a witty realism he brings life to the idea of simplicity creating a compelling and thought-provoking contribution to the discussion.