Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Laws of Simplicity: John Maeda

Early on in my ruminations, I had the simple observation that the letter “M,” “I,” and “T”—the letters by which my university is known—occur in natural sequence in the word SIMPLICITY. In fact, the same can be said of the word COMPLEXITY.

When I read this in the second page of the introduction of The Laws of Simplicity, I almost gave up.

The Laws of Simplicity (LoS) is about how John Maeda sees, believes, and practices simplicity. “As an artist, I would like to say that I wrote this book for myself…” writes John. Which is precisely the point. Read this book to understand John Maeda’s views on simplicity; don’t read it as a definitive tome on simplicity. Simplicity is too diverse a topic to be comprehensively dealt with by one person; it is too vast to be compressed in a 100-page book. And, to be fair to him, Maeda (who is the E. Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Media Arts & Sciences at MIT) does give you the feeling that he subscribes to this view.

The title (and the treatment, in terms of “laws”) is a bit misleading. It sounds a tad too definitive; it raises expectations; it takes on a huge canvas. Especially considering that LoS is based more on the author’s thoughts and beliefs than on researched output (a la The Tipping Point or The Undercover Economist or books of that ilk).

“I intentionally capped the total page count at 100 pages in accordance with the Time-saving third Law,” explains John. Perhaps 100 pages is too short – Maeda appears rushed at times, the page limit seemingly playing on his mind. Form versus function?

On to the content of the book itself. Here are the ten laws, as stated from the book.

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.

As is evident in the list, the laws are a bit of a pot pourri, some alluding to design, some to organization; a dash of time management here, a touch of the emotional there; the odd philosophy, the inevitable apparent-exceptions-to-the-rule (laws 5 and 9). By themselves, you may not disagree with any of the individual laws, but do they represent a collective means to achieve simplicity?

Moreover, within the laws, there are didactic planning tools like SHE (Shrink, Hide, Embody), SLIP (Sort, Label, Integrate, Prioritize), and BRAIN (Basics, Repeat, Avoid, Inspire, Never). A bit arbitrary perhaps. Or is this book on its way to becoming a text book or a self-help book a la Stephen Covey’s masterpiece? Are SHE cards, SLIP folders, and BRAIN CDs on the offing?

As you would expect from someone who has had extensive exposure in the business world, Maeda has peppered LoS with examples, predominantly from consumer products – DVD players, the iPod, Google (is Google NOT an example for anything nowadays?), and Toyota, to name a few. A few examples from other disciplines like the arts, nature, and anthropology could perhaps have added dimension.

The language is a bit forced – serious, overly so, preachy even. And the odd attempt to see connections (where there are none) and building something out of them is quite exasperating. Consider this, right at the end of the book.

Ten laws (10: one, zero), remove none (0: zero), and you’re left with one (1: one). When in doubt, turn to the tenth Law: THE ONE.

The companion blog to the book could well become a more valuable reference tool on the subject than the book itself, as and when it moves beyond the book. Another useful window on the subject could be the MIT simplicity blog, also run by John.

To reiterate what I said earlier, read LoS for John’s sake. (Which is how I read it the second time over.) You may find it useful and insightful.

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