The Laws of Simplicity

by John Maeda
MIT Press: 2006

EN: This was a book-length manuscript, but the author provides a great deal of elaboration around a few paragraphs of meaningful information, which is rather ironic, given the subject and title.


We have arrived at a point where technology has become overwhelming: there's simply too much information. It's difficult to get the information you want, and there are many who are attempting to distract you with information you don't. His goal is to find a away to cut the clutter and get back to the simple life.

When it comes to products "simplicity sells." People are looking for easier, quicker, and more intuitive ways to fulfill their needs, and will give their dollars and their loyalty to companies that provide it.

The author wrote this book as an examination of the topic of simplicity, and as an attempt to define a short list of ten principles that can help to keep things simple - whether in personal practice or in product design.

Law 1 - Reduce

The easiest way to make something simple is to clear the clutter. The author provides an example of a DVD player's jumble of buttons. The one that is used the most is simply "play." That's not to say the others are useless - there's value in able to pause the action or replay a scene - and customers would miss them if they were removed. But there's a balance to be achieved in making a device as simple as possible, but not remove what is wanted or needed.

The author suggests the "SHE" approach - Shrink, Hide, or Embody

SHRINK means making this smaller to make them more user-friendly. A person is more intimidated by a wrecking crane than a cell phone, though the latter is infinitely more complex.

HIDE means pushing features to the background when not in use. The Swiss army knife may have 40 tools, but the ones not in use are folded back, out of sight and out of mind. The computer interface is an excellent application of this principle: the user's attention is focused on the top window, with loads of functions hidden behind icons and within menus.

EMBODY means to give the user a sense of quality. This one's a little odd, and seems to apply mainly to devices: a device made of metal seems better than one made of plastic, a device that is small and heavy is perceived as being of more quality that one that is cumbersome and lightweight.

Law 2 - Organize

Where content exceeds space, the options are to (1) enlarge the space (2) decrease the content (3) organize the content. The author uses the example of possessions in a house, but it applies to abstract content as well.

Another acronym: SLIP

He recommends using individual notes for the initial process, then using of tables for organizing data: vertical columns of like items in a group with a column header. He also suggests a big-picture approach - blurring the words to see the "shape" of things.

Law 3 - Time

Complexity breeds idle time, specifically, in the form of waiting. In complex, congested road systems, you spend a lot of time waiting in traffic. In complex systems, you spend a lot of time waiting on things to load and process. Conversely, there is a relationship between downtime and perceived complexity - the more time a user spends waiting, the more they come to believe that the task is difficult.

There is a high cost of making critical processes run faster - the example of sending a letter by USPS versus FedEx (the latter is much faster, and much more expensive) - and it's often a balance between the benefits of speed and the cost of making things faster.

From a business perspective, time is money. Reducing the time it takes to do something reduces labor - the more a task is performed, and the more people perform it, the greater the impact.

From a consumer perspective, it's harder to gauge, but there is a distinct preference for speed, and in that preference is competitive advantage. A general principle is that, when it is not feasible to make the wait shorter, make it more tolerable.

One method to reduce time is to remove constraints: making a process of several steps shorter by reducing the number of things a user has to do to get from beginning to end. The author provides examples of default settings on devices, or "one-click ordering" on online stores. Both allow a user to do things (and the things they are expected to be likely to want to do) in fewer steps.

Another approach would be to "hide" time - by removing the indicators that signal a user that time is passing. Time seems to pass faster when you're not watching a clock. (EN: no practical example is provided).

On the other hand, you can "embody" time by providing progress indicators. Seeing a thermometer bar grow incrementally gives the user a sense that progress is being made, making the user aware of the length of time to get to the head of a line makes them less impatient and frustrated.

He also speaks of the design of physical objects - making things seem sleek and streamlined (even objects that are not designed to travel through physical spaces) gives them a sense of speed: vacuum cleaners have the look of turbine engines, computers take on vents and piping of hot rods.

Law 4 - Learn

Knowledge makes life easier, and the person who knows how to do a task is more efficient than the one who must discover how to do it. An excellent example is the screw - a very simple device, but one which requires knowledge. If you know the basic principles (clockwise to tighten, counterclockwise to loosen), it saves you a lot of time experimenting.

There is a perception that the necessity of learning is bad - that the user should be able to dive in and do it without "wasting" the time. Often, it turns out that those who take the time to learn spend less time overall (for both study and action) than those who attempt to "learn by doing."

Another acronym: BRAIN

He refers to the RTFM approach of engineering (he uses that exact acronym) - but this requires a user who is highly motivated to learn. A design approach needs to be a lot more gentle. His suggestion is a three-step approach:

The key is to put he user into a comfort zone, and gradually feed them the knowledge they need to do increasingly more complex tasks (or discovering more efficient ways to do the simple ones) - though care must be taken to distinguish between the "need to know" and the "nice to know."

In the end, the "real" payoff to the user is increasing power: the more they learn, the more they can do, and the greater the reward. If you plan steps along the way, at which the user can appreciate their success incrementally, the user will be more willing to accept the "burden" of learning.

Law 5 - Differences

Simplicity is only valued if it is in contrast to complexity: a simple product is more valued in comparison to more complex options. The same may be said of features of a single product. The author concedes that it may be of value to provide some contrast.

(EN: The author doesn't do a very good job with this one: he provides an extended example of how one simple item in an array of more complex ones calls attention to itself; another of how one complex item in a simple environment underscores the simplicity of everything else, and suggests that there is a "rhythm" to be achieved.)

Law 6 - Context

Context is significant: everything exists in an environment. The "real world" does not provide many spaces where something can be done in complete solitude, without distractions - though in some instances, a space can be designed.

From a design perspective, empty space can be significant - it can call attention to itself, or that which it encloses, or that which it surrounds. While the initial impulse is to fill empty space with "something," in many cases it's better to leave it as it is to provide contrast - emptiness emphasizes what is not empty.

Procedurally, there is a context of what comes before and after present state. When designing procedures, that can be considered. The author also describes the concept of being "comfortably lost" - where the user does not feel compelled to take a specific step, and has the option of choice. Also, the sense of being "comfortably lost" is necessary to enhance the sense of discovery when the way is found.

Law 7 - Emotion

This chapter is a wreck. The author discusses:

He meanders, and doesn't seem to come to a point, except to suggest that emotional attachment is a factor of design (though what it has to do with "keeping things simple" is unclear).

Law 8 - Trust

Trust is bilateral: if a device is simple, such that it has few functions and performs them reliably (minimizing the things that could happen accidentally or unintentionally), then people will trust it. From the human perspective, the more we trust devices to take care of tasks, the simpler our lives become.

The author speaks of learning to swim - how the entire process became easier for him when he learned to trust the water, and the natural buoyancy of the human body. A well-designed object has much the came quality as the smooth surface of a swimming tool, in giving the user the confidence to trust the device to perform.

The author speaks of the omakase menu of sushi restaurants - where the customer merely specifies a price range and allows the chef to choose what he will serve. (This is a bit different from a "tasting menu", in which the customer knows what he is choosing.) this is another example of trust: in which the diner willingly puts his choices in the hands of someone else, in whose expertise they trust.

The author speaks of the "undo" function as a bridge toward trust - a user will be more likely to test the waters of an unfamiliar process if they know, going into it, that there is a fast and painless way to reverse any unwanted effects. At worst, it is interpreted as assuming the user will make mistakes - but at best, it gives the user the willingness to move forward when uncertain.

Intelligent systems also help in building trust: the more a system knows about you, the less you need to know about a system. Consider the "recommendations" feature of online stores - the more accurate the recommendations, the less you have to hunt, and the easier and more simple the process of shopping at that store becomes.

Trust can be built upon, or it can be violated - the relationship between a user and a system can fluctuate much as the relationships between a person and another person will.

Law 9 - Failure

The author suggests that failure is inevitable: not everything can be made simple. And simplicity itself can become a flaw: it is possible to oversimplify, such that utility is hidden or disregarded.

Law 10 - The One

This chapter is another wreck of random thoughts. The author states:

My sense is that the ultimate measure of simplicity is a device that does one thing perfectly. However, this leads to a clutter of single-purpose items.


The purpose of technology is to enable people to do things they would not be able to do - or to do as well or efficiently - without it. The side effect is that technology disables people to do things any other way. A child who learns to operate a calculator cannot "do" math, and cannot understand more advanced concepts that rely on a fundamental understanding of the basic ones. In life, be careful of the choices you make, and the degree to which you allow technology to "assist" you.