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The Laws of Simplicity

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Ten laws of simplicity for business, technology, and design that teach us how to need less but get more.

Finally, we are learning that simplicity equals sanity. We're rebelling against technology that's too complicated, DVD players with too many menus, and software accompanied by 75-megabyte "read me" manuals. The iPod's clean gadgetry has made simplicity hip. But sometimes we find ourselves caught up in the simplicity paradox: we want something that's simple and easy to use, but also does all the complex things we might ever want it to do. In The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda offers ten laws for balancing simplicity and complexity in business, technology, and design—guidelines for needing less and actually getting more.

Maeda—a professor in MIT's Media Lab and a world-renowned graphic designer—explores the question of how we can redefine the notion of "improved" so that it doesn't always mean something more, something added on.

Maeda's first law of simplicity is "Reduce." It's not necessarily beneficial to add technology features just because we can. And the features that we do have must be organized (Law 2) in a sensible hierarchy so users aren't distracted by features and functions they don't need. But simplicity is not less just for the sake of less. Skip ahead to Law 9: "Failure: Accept the fact that some things can never be made simple." Maeda's concise guide to simplicity in the digital age shows us how this idea can be a cornerstone of organizations and their products—how it can drive both business and technology. We can learn to simplify without sacrificing comfort and meaning, and we can achieve the balance described in Law 10. This law, which Maeda calls "The One," tells us: "Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful."

128 pages, Hardcover

First published July 7, 2006

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About the author

John Maeda

32 books211 followers
John Maeda [MY-ay-da] is a world-renowned artist, graphic designer, computer scientist and educator whose career reflects his philosophy of humanizing technology. For more than a decade, he has worked to integrate technology, education and the arts into a 21st-century synthesis of creativity and innovation.

Maeda's early work redefined the use of electronic media as a tool for expression by combining skilled computer programming with sensitivity to traditional artistic concerns. This work helped to develop the interactive motion graphics that are prevalent on the web today. A pioneering voice for simplicity in the digital age, he also initiated the Design by Numbers project, a global initiative to teach computer programming to visual artists through a freely available, custom software system he designed.

As a digital artist, Maeda has exhibited in well-received one-man shows in London, New York and Paris. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Cartier Foundation in Paris. In the design realm, he is a trustee of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and has developed advanced projects for major corporations such as Cartier, Google, Philips, Reebok and Samsung, among others.

In 2008 Maeda was named one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century by Esquire magazine. In 2001 he earned the National Design Award in the US; in 2002, the Mainichi Design Prize in Japan; and in 2005, the Raymond Loewy Foundation Prize in Germany.

A former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Maeda taught media arts and sciences there for 12 years and served as associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab. He has published four books, including his 480-page retrospective MAEDA@MEDIA and his most recent, The Laws of Simplicity, which has been translated into 14 languages. Maeda has lectured widely, including at Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, the Royal College of Art, Stanford and UCLA; at the Centre Pompidou, TED conferences and Walker Art Center; and for corporations such as Herman Miller, Sony, Steelcase, Toshiba and Yahoo!.

A native of Seattle, Maeda earned bachelor's and master's degrees in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from MIT, followed by a PhD in Design Science from the University of Tsukuba Institute of Art and Design in Japan and an MBA from Arizona State University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 353 reviews
Profile Image for Erika RS.
724 reviews204 followers
September 29, 2013
This short (100 page) book gives 10 laws and 3 key properties for designing simple systems. Maeda provides a hand summary of the laws and key principles:

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 key principles:

1. Away: More appears like less simply by moving it far, far away.
2. Open: Openness simplifies complexity.
3. Power: Use less, gain more.

I fail to see the difference between the laws and principles (maybe Maeda just didn't want 13 laws ;), but other than that, these feel like a good set of principles to keep in mind when designing. They capture many common design dilemmas. For example, systems are often designed for expert and novice users. The "Learn" principle can be used to frame this dilemma. A novice user has no knowledge about your system; an expert user has that knowledge. The system should provide necessary knowledge to the user while not getting in the way of the expert. By reducing the knowledge needed (law 1), possibly by relying on knowledge the user already has (law 4) this dual nature may be achievable. There may still be problems because some complexity is inherent in trying to cater to two user groups (law 9).

The Laws of Simplicity rings true. It is consistent with what I have read of Don Norman's work and with a good deal of what I remember from Jef Raskin's book The Humane Interface. It is also consistent with what I learned in HCI and my own experience.

One nitpick: the book tried to hard to push the associated website. Once at the end would have been enough. I can forgive it that quirk since it was, in general quite spiffy (and shiny, literally; the cover had pretty shiny bits).
Profile Image for lorinbocol.
261 reviews323 followers
December 20, 2017
mies van der rohe insegna: less is more. e con lui, tutti i più grandi.
munari diceva: complicare è facile, semplificare è difficile. e un paio di secoli prima, blaise pascal si scusava per la lunghezza di una lettera: «non ho avuto tempo di scriverne una più breve».
essere lineari non è (quasi) mai una conquista im-mediata.
Profile Image for Rob.
86 reviews85 followers
November 30, 2016
well, i was hoping for much more philosophy. turned out to be mostly about product design.

also, the register was often annoyingly sort of oprahish. explaining to the reader why certain objects make them feel certain emotions, with the implication that if you follow these instructions and buy objects satisfying the following guidelines, you'll soon be feeling better emotions.

that said, i actually really liked most of the 10 laws, and just wish that in the exposition he'd had more examples about buddhist monks and education, and less about ipods and google. also, i liked that he consciously applied his laws to his own efforts, limiting the book to 100 pages, etc. i'll always give you a star for taking things to the next meta-level.
Profile Image for Brynn.
337 reviews20 followers
December 3, 2010
"Simplicity is about the unexpected pleasure derived from what is likely to be insignificant and would otherwise go unnoticed." (2)

"The Pareto Principle is useful as a rule of thumb: assume that in any given bin of data, generally 80% can be managed at lower priority and 20% requires the highest level. Everything is important, but knowing where to start is the critical first step." (14)

"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." (21)

"At the end of the day, there is an end of the day. Thus choosing when to care less versus when to care more lies at the heart of living an efficient but fulfilling daily life." (26)

"Knowledge is comfort, and comfort lies at the heart of simplicity." (29)

"Design starts by leveraging the human instinct to relate, followed by translating the relationship into a tangible object or service, and then ideally adding a little surprise at the end to make your audience's efforts worthwhile." (39)

"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." (56)

"The best art makes your head spin with questions. Perhaps this is the fundamental distinction between pure art and pure design. While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear." (70)

"Marc poignantly surmised that memories are all that matter in the end." (100)
Profile Image for Ettore Pasquini.
135 reviews112 followers
January 22, 2013
If this book was supposed to make me a better designer, it failed. It's a collection of thoughts on design taken from a more abstract/holistic point of view. This wouldn't be a bad idea in itself, if only these reflections were a little more insightful. For some (most?) of them I failed to read between the lines. Example: What good is to explain how the TAB key works and how powerful it is in organizing data? Or forcing gratuitious acronyms upon your readers and pretending they'd remember them?

Speaking about acronyms: what do they have to do with design anyway? The author discovers new ones in every page, and it gets annoying quickly.

However, I liked the idea of "laws," or abstract guiding principles. I think it would have been better to be more schematic and simply discuss examples of each one. When Iwata does so he's pretty good, for example explaining the iPod UI evolution across the years. What's wrong with keeping it... simple and just do that?
Profile Image for Rafael Bandeira.
18 reviews6 followers
January 19, 2011
Good study on what simplicity, both real and perceived, are made of, and what to focus on to achieve it. For product design or business management, or even daily life, good concepts are present in the book to help simplify or better understand the complexity around these.

The book is written in a personal and casual tone, sometimes even funny, that transmits a lot about the author, John Maeda, and gives an enjoyable feeling to follow through, as sounds a lot like a conversation. The small size also helps a lot.

There are somewhat confuse parts, when you don't really know whether they fit on understanding complexity or striving for simplicity. Although a light and easy reading, a good deal of attention is required.

I read it in Portuguese, so maybe the translation didn't help much. Looking forward to re-read in English.

A great book, highly recommended!
Profile Image for Mat Ranson.
34 reviews1 follower
January 21, 2010
I like Maeda, I have one of his old design books. This one started off well enough but quite soon I began to feel it wasn't really aimed at me. Maeda has a great capacity for summarising and shrinking information into simple, digestible phrases, but I couldn't help thinking with The Laws Of Simplicity he was shaping aesthetics and technology into metaphors aimed at middle managers looking for the latest self-help book.
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,963 reviews97 followers
March 13, 2022
Mr. Maeda has done a lot of thinking about simplicity from the point of view of a technologist and product designer, and he has a lot of good ideas. Products that do complex things are often better when their complexity is hidden or presented in ways that are intuitive and that walk you along a path of learning or that are built as analogies to things that you already know. Certainly a product that is simple to use can have a beauty and utility that makes it better than competing products that lack these virtues. And in a world so complex that our human brains can barely comprehend the limited parts of it that we have to master just to get through the day, simplicity is welcome.

But I did feel that in focusing his analysis of simplicity on technology and product design, Mr. Maeda missed one of the most important virtues of simplicity -- the spiritual quiet and emotional calmness and wholenss that can come out of things that are entirely simple, that are not just clever simple designs that make complex things accessible, but that are valuable because they are actually simple through and through. Maybe Mr. Maeda needs a little dose of Marie Kondo. If it doesn't spark joy, you don't need it. To be fair to Mr. Maeda the truly simple point of view is there in this book, but it's buried deep deep down three quarters of the way in where only a seeker will find it.

And as Mr. Maeda points out, all out simplicity all the time can't be the answer. A white room with nothing in it would quickly drive us crazy, as would music that endlessly repeats with no variation. Complexity or at least a little crack in the simplicity (like the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi) is necessary for beauty and to make our sensory input interesting.
Profile Image for Cristina Bermúdez.
383 reviews52 followers
April 17, 2021
La simplicidad es la reina.
Este libro cortito te proporciona 10 leyes de simplicidad que pueden aplicarse a muchos ámbitos. Aunque claro, este libro se centra principalmente en la simplicidad del diseño.
Profile Image for Leticia Supple.
Author 4 books17 followers
September 6, 2015
John Maeda, fascinated by simplicity, has distilled the art of simplicity down to 10 Laws. This text walks you through them, and it is not exactly a simple work.

I say that it is not simple because, while it is a short read it is a lot of information to process. In the beginning, the author states that you could read this in a lunchtime. Well, not unless your lunchtime is at least three hours' long: That's actually how long it took me to read it, over two days. Maybe this days more about the type of employment the author has (he lectures at MIT) than anything else.

But the work is also quite academic. It follows typical academic paper structure. And the author has created a whole lot of acronyms to help the laws carry. After reading this, I remember two of them (she, slip), but I can't for the life of me tell you what they stand for.

It's an interesting proposition, to discover the laws of simplicity. If you're working in product design then you will want to get your hands on this book and give it a good going over. But it's not exactly applicable to everything else. Some of it I found quite valuable (especially the notions of comfort and simplicity, and of freedom and comfort, where empowering people through knowledge is a core element), but most of it was curio value only.

The One law, Law 10, states that simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding meaningful value. But to get here, you have to wade some seriously dense material. At times I actually couldn't follow the flow of the book; ideas seemed disconnected and disjointed, the narrative was all over the place, and the examples actually didn't highlight anything in particular. Except for the fact that the author is an Apple fan boy. Many of the examples could have been removed or (better! Changed!) and improved the reading experience. It's a huge gripe I have with this book, actually. And perhaps it's because the work has come out such an academic perspective - but many of the examples have really low value over all. If they had been any good, I would have expected to remember more than one of the ten laws.

In any case, it's a reasonable read if you're interested in the art of simplicity. Just don't expect it to be amazing, or even, dare I say, accessible.
1 review
June 9, 2015
The book starts off on a strong note with the first law of simplicity: thoughtful reduction. Reduction is achieved through the principles of shrinking, hiding and embodying. Technologies have been simplified through technological progress, which has allowed small objects to have the same technological capability as larger ones. The size of an object leads to surprise and awe and can be more forgiving than a larger one. An object can also be simplified by hiding features and leaving only the essential ones. When an object is small and features are hidden, it may be more difficult for someone to believe it is better. Therefore the last principle is to embed the object with value. This can be through actual materials which are superior, or through marketing tactics.

Maeda's next 9 laws lose the design focus of the first chapter and the examples he uses are not useful. For instance, Maeda's solution to organization (the second law) is to group tasks using sticky notes or creating a mind map. This isn't providing much of a solution to organization. Maeda draws heavily on Apple, which is probably a good example since everyone is familiar with the company's products. While his laws, like saving time (Law 3) make sense, his examples do not. Is Apple's shuffle only iPod really saving much time rather than fumbling around selecting a song?

Maybe Maeda's book is too generic; rather than trying to address design, technology, business and life, he should try to simplify by eliminating so many topics he is trying to cover. And, according to Law 4, "Learn", he should repeat often the main message of these at the end of each chapter as they are not so clear from the text.
Profile Image for Mahrous.
330 reviews178 followers
July 30, 2017
With fast progress in technology, I think we shouldn't read self-help books about technology that was written more than 2 years ago from the reading time.

The 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.

Neither all the laws were well-explained nor the examples were related and interesting.

The writer promised What He Couldn't Deliver.
Profile Image for Yelena.
140 reviews28 followers
December 13, 2018
Простота — разумное сокращение

Увидеть лес за деревьями через 1) выписать 2) сгруппировать 3) приоритизировать

Задавайте вопросы по-другому:
- Как сделать ожидание короче? - Как сделать его более терпимым?
- Насколько простой вы можете сделать вещь? - Насколько сложной она должна быть?
- Насколько я готов позволить собой управлять? - Насколько я могу себе позволить остаться без управления?

10 законов:
1) разумно сократить то, что есть
2) организовать в компактное
3) беречь время
4) учиться
5) простое - сложное: видеть различия
6) контекст важен (в отдалении - не второстепенное)
7) лучше с эмоциями
8) верить в простоту
9) не все можно упростить
10) убрать очевидное, добавить необходимое

1) большее - меньшее, если отодвинуть
2) открытость упрощает сложность
3) трать меньше, получай больше
Profile Image for Jay French.
2,053 reviews77 followers
September 29, 2014
This is really a list of 10 or 13 laws/principles of simple design, with a little discussion and a few examples under each. The laws seemed pretty simple, so simple they seemed either self evident or not a large leap to extrapolate from experiences. I didn't find anything groundbreaking, but it is good to have a list like this to think about when you hit a design issue. I listened on audio, and this had the issues of most books focusing on lists - it gives the listener too much to remember. I'd say the paper book would be better, but this is short, and you can find the list of laws on the internet, including in a top review on Goodreads.
Profile Image for Dave Sanders.
81 reviews10 followers
March 6, 2009
This is a sort of "Zen and the art of Being Simple." It's not full of practical advice, but more of a thought-process and style that you should apply to everything to make it simple. Some good underlying principles for those who are designers or who need to communicate ideas, but quite lacking in practical application.

Amusing book for a limited audience I think.
Profile Image for Simon Bostock.
9 reviews11 followers
May 15, 2011
This is a kind of 'barely book' - it's slight, in every sense of the word, and I can barely recall any of it. But I wrote oodles in the margins. And I've thought 'through' the book many times.

Go figure.
10 reviews
January 25, 2018
I was never able to move past that the author could not comprehend of people different from him. For people that need more than play and fast-forward for your media devices, you are not a part of his target audience.
Profile Image for Skyler.
313 reviews13 followers
May 17, 2020
For a book that came out when Amazon only sold books and Friendster was the leading example of a social network, this book is pretty relevant. A good set of design principles that I found could be applied to my work. It delved into spiritual wishy-washy self-help to a degree, but I can see myself returning to this book for inspo.
Profile Image for Reese.
1 review
January 29, 2022
Covers only the basics of simplicity in tech design, but the examples Maeda provided were illustrative and impactful. It did not really touch so much on the business topic as well. A good book for starters; not something I would recommend if you are looking for in-depth knowledge.
Profile Image for Xabi.
16 reviews3 followers
May 12, 2022
Boringly self centred. A book that could’ve been a blog post at most.
May 8, 2021
There is a lot about simplicity that the book presents, and lot of interesting facts explained in a non technical fashion.

I was hoping for much more concrete yet simple explanations that lodges the essence of simplicity firmly in you. There has been a good effort to connect the dots, but the explanations or the choice of anecdotes in here sometimes feel weak for their cause.

Though to recall the chapters I liked, I had say the first three - reduce, organized, time. And of the rest learn, emotion, trust and just the title of the 10th chapter. The title is profound and I think a lot could have been done to make it the central piece in the book.
Profile Image for Kim.
Author 3 books21 followers
August 29, 2022
I love simplicity--as a concept, a philosophy, and a guiding principle for art, creativity (and wisdom... when someone can write about something complex in a simple way, that person is a genius.)
John Maeda is a good writer and I enjoyed his book.
Profile Image for Mabel.
615 reviews3 followers
January 7, 2018
I really liked this book and its wry sense of humor. The ideas are well...simple but complex. It’s interesting and full and makes me hmmmm about his ideas and the kinds of ways that they reflect and challenge how I think. I enjoyed this immensely and I think it’s a worthwhile quick read.
Profile Image for Enrique.
48 reviews6 followers
September 8, 2018
This is worth a read for designers and technologists. I added an extra star because I read it cover to cover in about 1.5 hours and—as a slow reader—that felt great.
Profile Image for T Cho.
1 review1 follower
June 9, 2014
John Maeda's The Laws of Simplicity is a delightful, tasteful read. It is a book about design, technology, art, feelings, philosophy, humans, nature, human nature, and everything in between.

First of all, when I saw the book nobly sitting on the shelf in the Museum of Art and Design in NY, I found myself immediately gravitating towards it. I was enticed by its slim size and sleek, fashionable cover. I can assure you that the book's impressive looks are matched by the impressive content and insights that reside within its pages.

Maeda's personal insights are the heart of the book. He has mastered the art of story-telling, in which a "moral of the story" is included. The book is rather humbly written, not the least bit intimidating, and highly relatable. The book has no shortage of humor and wordplay. And can I just add that the visuals were great :-)

Maeda is the master of clarity and organization in writing. Don't be fooled by the book's succinctness. There's truly deep stuff in there. What I like is that you don't have to dig too deep to find the treasures in the writing. Maeda's has got them all laid out for you, in beautifully organized chapters and subheadings.

The only thing I would say is that the acronyms, which, according to Maeda, are implemented to help readers better understand his concepts, were a bit petty and unnecessary (for my taste), but nonetheless did not completely reverse my admiration for the book.
Profile Image for Glenda Burgess.
Author 7 books27 followers
April 3, 2013
John Maeda's short, direct essays on the "laws of simplicity" as he defines them, are from a technical viewpoint (both design and technology), but accessible, fresh, and thoughtful. The most engaging ideas for me, as a writer, concerned the role of design in discerning "clarity" (of thought, product, purpose) and that essence within art (what is moving, unexpected, transcendent, beautiful perhaps) that is fundamental to the human spirit, a luminous "reason" for living. This is a likable book that tends to the ruminative. Maeda's ideas on the meaningful qualities of simplicity philosophically bridge both technical and life questions in design and purpose.
Profile Image for Vishal Solanki.
12 reviews
May 20, 2015
Great book for those who want to think about their Innovative approaches! Each title of the Chapter gives us a view what it is gonna deal with which helps us reduce the simplest way to achieve simplicity that could be through thoughtful reduction.organisation makes thing look more organised and easier to solve and fewer, which in turn helps in saving time.Learning helps us gain knowledge and help us complete our task in much easier way..Trust in yourself to achieve big.Failure makes us weak but also increases our hunger to achieve success!
Profile Image for Tim.
424 reviews9 followers
March 5, 2008
I thought it was ok...probably a book I will reach for in my design work, but overall I thought it was a little too "cutesy" and quaint. I think the underlying themes are timeless, but it felt like some of the methods they were presented would seem dated in a very short time. I think I get more insight/value from Mr. Maeda's blog.

Without giving anything away, I think the best (most important?) nugget of wisdom comes on the very last page of book.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 353 reviews

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