Maeda, J. (2006)
The Laws of Simplicity: design, technology, business, life
MIT Press (review)

A book on simplicity should be (in my humble opinion)... simple. This book could have been simple, but Maeda seems overly keen to introduce Laws, Keys and acronyms that make the issues he discusses complex. The difficulty with this approach is that the links between his principles are not clarified by his argument to the point where I can easily remember each of his Laws. I would have preferred only one principle and a coherent exploration of its basis. Of course the assumption (by me) that simplicity itself should be simple is quite likely erroneous... Maeda himself puts this under topic 9. FAILURE. I.e. it is not always possible to simplify things! Maeda writes, "THE FINAL FLAW: TOO MANY LAWS". I love his sense of irony.

So, what of the Laws themselves? 1. REDUCE and 2. ORGANISE could be merged together under the banner of ABSTRACT (the verb). I.e. to me ORGANISING is exactly what we do in order to REDUCE the behaviour and characteristics of entities into categories. Reduction and Organisation are both processes of abstraction whereby we determine significant features of entities and group the entities accordingly. We discard unwanted traits. I liked Maeda's discussion of the iPod controls in which he compares various versions of the device's interface.

3. TIME... "Savings in time feel like simplicity", writes Maeda. Sure, I'd have just encapsulated it as a paragraph or two under the heading REDUCE. I feel that the book should abide by its own principles. The discussion of scroll bars in the text is appropriate here, even if it has become something of a common example. The same is true of the idea that making a wait more tolerable is sometimes as effective as reducing it.

4. LEARN. I disagree with Maeda on a few points here. I don't think that the art of tying shoelaces is even "seemingly" simple. It appears to me to be a complex task requiring a great deal of dexterity and practice. I'm not surprised that children take some time to learn this skill and are unable to do it prior to having reached a certain level of development and aquired the coordination that accompanies it.

Whereas Maeda also indicates that his "ten years of data as a professor shows that giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge is the best motivator to learn", my own data gleaned over a similar period indicates that this motivates some students. Many others are discouraged by such a challenge and require that large tasks are broken up piecemeal into achievable sub-goals before they will even know where to begin... i.e. even here I subscribe to ABSTRACT. I like Maeda's little BRAIN categories although the acronym itself (as he himself indicates) is tiresome :-( B-asics are the beginning. R-epeat yourself often. A-void creating desperation. I-nspire with examples. N-ever forget to repeat yourself. These points contradict Maeda's own remark about offering a student a seemingly insurmountable task. At least Maeda notes that he arrived at them through his recent experience of becoming a student once again.

5. DIFFERENCES (simplicity and complexity need each other). The discussion gets a little laboured towards the end of the section. The links between rhythm, business cards and tea ceremonies were interesting and relevant. The section could also have been encapsulated under ABSTRACT. Reduction is carried out to the point where significant DIFFERENCES remain and insignificant DIFFERENCES may be hidden behind ABSTRACTion.

6. CONTEXT (what lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral). I enjoyed this section. It is easy to become too focussed on small issues and to miss the bigger picture, or to forget to appreciate things in context. Perhaps a large round CONTEXT with a small ABSTRACT in the middle of it would sum up my re-designed Maeda book on simplicity.

7. EMOTION. Spirit, individuality. This is a strange one. "More emotions are better than less". Without the catch-phrase it'd be hard to slot this topic into a book on simplicity. Instead EMOTION offers an alternative to the "less is more" maxim. Certainly in a world where everything is reduced to its minimum entities will all look the same... reduce complexity, but don't eliminate difference altogether. People love objects that express their DIFFERENCE. People do not like to feel they are "just like everybody else". I am glad a section like this found its way into such a book. I can only hope that it doesn't fall on deaf ears. I feel similarly about the section 8. TRUST.

How much are you willing to TRUST a "Master" in order to be able to simplify an experience? Do you TRUST your government to do what is best for you? Do you TRUST computers, automobile mechanics, doctors? Should you? There is something ominous about the amount of TRUST we are forced to invest in designed artefacts just in order to get by on a day to day basis. In part this seems to be about risk management. There is risk associated with simplicity... risk that the reduction will eliminate a potentially necessary feature or capability. I suppose this just falls back to the balance I alluded to above between ABSTRACTing away unwanted detail and maintaining what is needed. Make it simple enough... but not too simple.

9. FAILURE... see above.

10. THE ONE... but the ONE is not really ONE according to Maeda. It becomes three Keys that attempt to sum things up. This book is getting too complicated again. It has now given the reader the firm impression that its content needs more thought and its organization more consideration. The book could be much improved but offers some interesting starting points for discussion. Is this just a vehicle for Maeda's website/blog? I feel somewhat cheated. Its a little as if Maeda had a half-baked idea or 13 at lunch one day and published a book on it. The area is important and I feel it deserves a greater degree of research than that which has been devoted to it here.

Alan Dorin, 22 Nov 06

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