In a world which demands ‘more, done better, and faster,’ simplicity has taken on the power of a moral imperative.

In America, the average hours worked per week is now 47 hours, that’s nearly a six day work week. As parents, professionals, and members of little used gyms, the admonition to ‘Be All You Can Be’ is a self-escalating puzzle.

In the context of the more specialized and complex requirements faced in life, making one’s communications simple may be as important as making them polite.

So, simplicity equates to credibility and also the ability to fit with your audience’s over-stuffed lives. To time-strapped consumers, if it’s not simple, it’s not welcome.

Delete is the designer’s best friend

As a designer and strategy advisor, simplicity is never far from my mind. The delete button is is often both the designer’s best friend, as well as the business person’s.

In a society so driven by consumerism, deciding what we will forgo brings a focus and saves us from the dillution of trying to be too much.

So I’d like to recommend and share some thoughts about two texts which discuss simplicity as organizing principle of design and of the laws that organize civilization.

Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity



It’s a quick read, written for the layman in us all. I like that Maeda imposed a limit of 100 pages for himself, an idea consistent with his Third Law: “Savings in time feels like simplicity.”

Sushi chef as role model

It’s hard not to love the idea that sushi chefs can be role models for designers. When I implement design work, I often think of it as making sushi. After all, implementation of the craft part of our work is where it lives or dies. And we usually do it under deadline.

Though managing a sushi restaurant takes strategy, without the mastery of the implementation it would be just talk. Once the strategic elements are set, implementation proceeds as an inexorable outcome of investment, skill and bandwidth.

Maeda describes the sushi chef’s unique exposure to customers, as they often operate in front of their diners. This provides accountability, but also greater knowledge of the customer and the entire restaurant.

Such work requires a confidence, or ‘konjo,’ which enables them to focus their skill on expert delivery. In digital design, there’s absolutely a moment when the business mind that drives strategy steps aside and takes a back seat to the ‘konjo’ mind of implementation.

Do we design features or experiences?

Our technical thinking leads us to assign value to the creation of new features, not their thoughtful removal.

It’s hard to imagine Microsoft removing some of Excel’s features, simplifying the user experience, and then charging 10% more for the improved, streamlined product. Yet users everywhere demand better product experiences. And at the core of their request is a hunger for simplicity.

Trek guiding and being lost well

Long ago I took groups of people into mountains and down rivers to hard-to-find places. I learned a lot about being comfortably lost. We called it ‘wearing the dress of life loosely,’ or ‘enlightened shallowness.’

We’d focus on knowing what was necessary to make good progress in the face of informed uncertainty.

That ambiguity travelers face is also what consumers experience when using a new product. They’re on an adventure. People are affirmed by the productive disorientation of learning to use an iPod or a Flip video camera.

Maeda describes how to provide users enough context so they can make progress without a lot of specifics. His book is a fast read, and one you can return to easily to read just a few pages for a quick snack of inspiration.

Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World

Book Cover: Simple Rules for a Complex World

Also written for the layman, Epstein’s book on simplicity is a manifesto. As such, in 300 pages he rolls out persuasive arguments, statistics, and doses of libertarian political philosophy that promote more simple laws.

Both Maeda and Epstein recognize the virtues of simplicity are not absolute. Epstein points out that, relative to the state of nature, any legal system is complex. The absence of law is a conceptually simple system; however, it results in order based purely on force, and brings about a Hobbesian world in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Likewise, Maeda points out that simplicity must exist with a background of complexity. Making a product simple may require a longer and more thoughtful design process. Allowing a product to embody the complexity of its design and manufacture may be faster and less expensive.

Defining simplification for the law

Professor Epstein proposes four attributes that drive legal complexity:

  1. Length and density.
  2. Technical language requiring expert interpretation.
  3. Substantial overlap with other laws which may superseded.
  4. A lack of certainty in enforcement and prosecution.

Simple laws are easier to obey, administer and enforce without the additional costs of error. They provide less gray space or exceptions which often are the sign of giving favor to the influential.

Illusions of perfection drive complexity and diminish returns

Of course, simple laws are necessarily imperfect. Special cases will exist where, short of case-by-case judgment, unfortunate outcomes will occur. So complexity is introduced to the extent the law seeks ultimately just outcomes. Of course, the problems with this are both that perfection is impossible and even its pursuit adds new vulnerabilities.

As an example, a flat tax code would be a simple way to fund government. However, by adding nuance, tax laws can made fairer through a progressive rate. Further, discounts may encourage home ownership, business investment in specific neighborhoods, holding stocks for the long term, buying certain types of automobiles, or reducing the tax burden of families with health or childcare expenses.

Unfortunately, constant elaboration of our tax system has added thousands of pages of regulations.

Today, no legal professional fully understands all of tax law. This introduces the opportunity for near-limitless gamesmanship, diminishes the collection of taxes and increases the cost of compliance.

More simple rules would provide certainty about how to effectively comply with law and avoid the risk of erroneous fines.

What’s true of the law and design is certainly true for strategy

The comparison between simple and complex rules should be conducted not in the language of aspiration, but in the language of realizable achievement.

Epstein:

It is the more humble task which simple rules best discharge, for their relative cost-effectiveness and certainty forestall the vast amounts of intrigue brought into the legal system by the relentless, if naive, pursuit of perfection.

Less intrigue, more clarity and focus; resources freed to address priorities. That’s the goal of any good plan, whether it’s in law, design or building your next great business.