Tag: Art

The Simplest Way to Achieve Simplicity is Through Thoughtful Reduction

A close friend of mine argues that while we love the first part of Einstein’s quote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible,” we ignore the second part “but not simpler,” which is the essence of Occam’s Razor. This article is about how we can achieve simplicity through thoughtful reduction.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

— Einstein

After a bit of reflection, on twitter, I wrote: “You don’t fully understand something until you can simplify it. But if all you do is simplify it, you don’t understand it.

The complexity of “but not simpler” is where we struggle.

This is where our brain struggles and tries to avoid work. The struggle is where the real learning comes from.

We are pattern matching creatures — once we find a solution that works, we close our minds to alternative ideas.

A key element of simplicity and understanding is the thoughtful reduction of the unnecessary.

An inversion if you will. And yet one I wish more organizations would consider. While it’s counter-intuitive, subtraction is often more powerful than addition.

***

In The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda writes:

The easiest way to simplify a system is to remove functionality. Today’s DVD, for instance, has too many buttons if all you want to do is play a movie. A solution could be to remove the buttons for Rewind, Forward, Eject, and so forth until only one button remains: Play.

But what if you want to replay a favorite scene? Or pause the movie while you take that all-important bathroom break? The fundamental question is, where’s the balance between simplicity and complexity?

Simplicity Through Thoughtful Reduction

On the one hand, you want a product or service to be easy to use; on the other hand you want it to do everything that a person might want it to do.

The process of reaching an ideal state of simplicity can be truly complex, so allow me to simplify it for you. The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.

It’s not about removing for the sake of removing.

When it is possible to reduce a system’s functionality without significant penalty, true simplification is realized. When everything that can be removed is gone, a second battery of methods can be employed. I call these methods SHE: SHRINK, HIDE, EMBODY.

[…]

Simplicity is about the unexpected pleasure derived from what is likely to be insignificant and would otherwise go unnoticed.

***

If you’re short on time you can stop here. If you’re interested in SHE (Shrink, Hide, Embody) keep reading.

Size matters.

The smaller the object, the more forgiving we can be when it misbehaves.

Making things smaller doesn’t make them necessarily better, but when made so we tend to have a more forgiving attitude towards their existence. A larger-than-human-scale object demands its rightful respect, whereas a tiny object can be something that deserves our pity. When comparing a kitchen spoon to a construction bulldozer the larger scale of the vehicle instills fear, while the rounded utensil appears harmless and inconsequential. The bulldozer can run you over and end your life, but if the spoon were to fall on top of you, your life would likely be spared. Guns, mace cannisters, and little karate experts of course are the exception to this rule of “fear the large, endear the small.”

Technology is SHRINK-ing.

The computational power of a machine that sixty years ago weighed 60,000 pounds and occupied 1,800 square feet can now be packed onto a sliver of metal less than a tenth the size of the nail on your pinkie. Integrated circuit (IC) chip technology-commonly referred to as “computer chips”-allows far greater complexity at a much tinier scale. IC chips lie at the heart of the problem of complex devices today as they enable increasingly smaller devices to be created. A kitchen spoon and a mobile phone can share the exact same physical dimensions, yet the many IC’s embedded inside the phone make the device easily more complex than the bulldozer-so looks can be deceiving.

Thus while IC’s are a primary driver of complexity in modern day objects, they also enable the ability to shrink a frighteningly complex machine to the size of a cute little gumdrop. The smaller the object is, the lower the expectations; the more IC’s that are inside, the greater the power. In this age of wireless technology that connects the IC inside the phone with all the computers in the world, power has now become absolute. There is no turning back to the age when large objects were complex and small objects were simple.

[…]
Lessening the inevitable complicating blow of these technologies by way of SHRINK may seem like a form of deception, which it is. But anything that can make the medicine of complexity go down easier is a form of simplicity, even when it is an act of deceit.

SHE: HIDE

When all features that can be removed have been, and a product has been made slim, light, and thin, it’s time for the second method: HIDE the complexity through brute-force methods. A classical example of this technique is the Swiss army knife. Only the tool you wish to use is exposed, while the other blades and drivers are hidden.

[…]

Hiding complexity through ingenious mechanical doors or tiny display screens is an overt form of deception. If the deceit feels less like malevolence, more like magic, then hidden complexities become more of a treat than a nuisance. The ear-catching “click” when opening a Motorola Razr cell phone or the cinematic performance of an on-screen visual in Apple’s Mac OS X creates the satisfaction of owning the power to will complexity from simplicity. Thus complexity becomes a switch that the owner can choose to flip into action on their own terms, and not by their device’s will.

SHRINK-ing an object lowers expectations, and the hiding of complexities allows the owner to manage the expectations himself. Technology creates the problem of complexity, but also affords new materials and methods for the design of our relationship with complexities that shall only continue to multiply.

SHE: EMBODY

As features go into hiding and products shrink, it becomes ever more necessary to embed the object with a sense of the value that is lost after HIDE and SHRINK. Consumers will only be drawn to the smaller, less functional product if they perceive it to be more valuable than a bigger version of the product with more features. Thus the perception of quality becomes a critical factor when making the choice of less over more.

And in contrast to Sanjay Bakshi’s pragmatic take on the luxury goods business, Maeda takes a different approach.

Embodying an object with properties of real quality is the basis of the luxury goods industry and is rooted in their use of precious materials and exquisite craftsmanship. Relatedly, a designer of Ferrari cars once told me that a Ferrari has fewer parts than a common car, but the parts themselves are significantly better than anything else on this earth. This elegant tale of construction uses the simple philosophy that if good parts can make a great product, incredible parts can lead to a legendary one.

[…]

It is necessary to advertise qualities that cannot be conveyed implicitly, especially when the message of embodiment simply tells the truth.

The first law can be summed up as:

Lessen what you can and conceal everything else without losing the sense of inherent value. EMBODY-ing a greater sense of quality through enhanced materials and other messaging cues is an important subtle counterbalance to SHRINK-ing and HIDEing the directly understood aspects of a product. Design, technology, and business work in concert to realize the final decisions that will lead to how much reduction in a product is tolerable, and how much quality it will embody in spite of its reduced state of being. Small is better when SHE’d.

The Laws of Simplicity is worth reading in its entirety.

Seuss-isms: A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out and Those Already on Their Way

Seuss-isms

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was the famous children’s book author. He was also a philosopher. Seuss-isms! A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out…and Those Already on Their Way offers a taste of some of his wit and wisdom.

Be True To Yourself

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go

Listen to Good Advice

Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things,” said my uncle,
“you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid …
BUT … you must spit out the air.”
My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

Think Before You Speak

My father had warned me, “Don’t babble. Don’t bray.
For you never can tell who might hear what you say.”
My father had warned me, “But button your lip.”
And I guess that I should have. I made a bad slip.
Steak for Supper

Tell the Truth

“Stop telling such outlandish tales.
Stop turning minnows into whales.”
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street

Focus

This was no time for play.
This was no time for fun.
This was no time for games.
There was work to be done.
The Cat in the Hat Comes Back

Don’t Be Afraid to Accept Help

I floated twelve days without toothpaste or soap.
I practically, almost, had given up hope
When someone up high shouted, “Here! Catch the rope!”
Then I knew that my troubles had come to an end
And I climbed the rope, calling, “Thank you, my friend!”
I had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew

Expect the Unexpected

I heard a strange ‘peep’ and I took a quick look
And you know what I saw with the look that I took?
A bird laid an egg on my ‘rithmetic book!
Marco Comes Late

Try New Things

I do not like
green eggs
and ham!
I do not like them,
Sam I am.

You do not like them.
So you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may.
Try them and you may, I say
Green Eggs and Ham

Take Chances

The places I hiked to!
The roads that I rambled
To find the best eggs
that have ever been scrambled!
If you want to get eggs
you can’t buy at a store,
You have to do things
never thought of before.
Scrambled Eggs Super

Reading Expands Your Horizons

The more that you read,
the more things you will know.
The more that you learn,
the more places you’ll go.
I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!

Be Grateful

When you think things are bad,
when you feel sour and blue,
when you start to get mad …
you should do what I do!
Just tell yourself, Duckie,
you’re really quite lucky!
Some people are much more …
oh, ever so much more …
oh muchly much-much more
unlucky than you.
Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

Embrace your strengths

Shout loud, “I am lucky to be what I am!
Thank goodness I’m not just a clam or a ham
Or a dusty old jar of sour gooseberry jam!
I am what I am!
Happy Birthday to You

Be Proactive

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole lot,
nothing is going to get better,
It’s not.
The Lorax

Remain Humble

The rabbit felt mighty
important that day
On top of the hill
in the sun where he lay.
He felt SO important
up there on that hill
That he started bragging
as animals will …
The Big Brag

Learn to Improvise

“All I need is a reindeer. …”
The Grinch looked around.
But, since reindeer are scarce, there was none to be found.
Did that stop the old Grinch?
No! The Grinch simply said,
“If I can’t find a reindeer, I’ll make one instead!”
So he called his dog, Max. Then he took some red thread,
And he tied a big horn on the top of his head.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Seuss-isms! A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out…and Those Already on Their Way dispenses invaluable life advice like only Dr. Seuss can.

Vincent van Gogh on Color

Vincent van Gogh on Color

In a letter to his brother Theo, dated July 1882, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, Vincent van Gogh describes how the simple few fundamentals combine into nearly endless permutations.

Absolute black doesn’t in fact occur. Like white, however, it’s present in almost every colour and forms the endless variety of greys — distinct in tone and strength. So that in nature one in fact sees nothing but these tones or strengths.

The 3 fundamental colours are red, yellow, blue, “composite” orange, green, purple.

From these are obtained the endless variations of grey by adding black and some white — red-grey, yellow-grey, blue-grey, green-grey, orange-grey, violet-grey.

It’s impossible to say how many different green-greys there are for example — the variation is infinite.

But the whole chemistry of colours is no more complicated than those simple few fundamentals. And a good understanding of them is worth more than 70 different shades of paint — given that more than 70 tones and strengths can be made with the 3 primary colours and white and black. The colourist is he who on seeing a colour in nature is able to analyze it coolly and say, for example, that green-grey is yellow with black and almost no blue, &c. In short, knowing how to make up the greys of nature on the palette.

What A Rembrandt Can Teach you about Software and Programmers

A thoughtful passage by David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean on how looking at a Rembrandt can teach us to better understand not only software but the craft behind it.

Suppose you visit an art museum and walk up to a painting. I say “Ah ha! I see you’re admiring some powdered pigments, mixed with oil and smeared onto what appears to be a canvas panel.” You say “No, you moron. I’m admiring a Rembrandt.” Good. You’re three-quarters of the way towards a deep understanding of software.

How did this happen?

Well clearly we may, if we choose, regard a painting as a coming-together of two separate elements. The paints and canvas—the physical stuff; and the form-giving mind-plan. I’ll call these two elements the body and the disembodied painting respectively.

Both are necessary to the finished product. But they are unequally decisive to its character. If Rembrandt had (while trying to shake out a tablecloth) accidentally chucked his favorite paint set into a canal on the very morning he was destined to make our painting; if he’d accordingly been forced to go down to the basement and hunt up another set—the finished product would be the same. But if he’d altered his mind-plan—the disembodied painting—before setting to work, our finished painting would obviously have been different.

In fact, the disembodied painting is a painting in and of itself— albeit a painting of a special kind, namely an unbodied one. Rembrandt is perfectly entitled to tell his wife “I have a painting in mind” before setting to work. But plainly the mere body is no painting, not in and of itself. If the paints on Rembrandt’s table went around telling people “Hey look at us, we’re a painting,” no-one would believe them.

This distinction is the key to software and its special character. A running program is a machine of a certain kind, an information machine. The program text—the words and symbols that the programmer composes, that “tell the computer what to do” – is a disembodied information machine. Your computer provides a body.

Unlike Rembrandt’s mind plan, a disembodied information machine must be written down precisely and in full. It’s a bit like the engineering drawings for a new toaster in this regard; the machine designer leaves nothing to chance. Unlike Rembrandt’s mind plan or the toaster drawings, on the other hand, a disembodied information machine can be “embodied” automatically. No skill, judgement or human intervention is required. Merely hand your text to a computer (it’s probably stored inside the computer already); the computer itself performs the “embodying.”

So: A running program—an information machine or infomachine for short—is the embodiment of a disembodied machine. In saying this, we have said a lot. A fairly simple point first, then a subtle and deeply important one—

Some people believe that, when they see a program running, the machine they are watching is a “computer.” True, but not true enough. The computer, that impressive-looking box with the designer logo, is merely the paint, not the painting. When you say I’m watching this computer do its stuff, you are saying in effect I’m admiring not this Rembrandt but some paint smeared on canvas. Some people imagine the computer as a gifted actor (say) who is handed a program and declaims it feelingly. No: bad image. The computer itself is of the utmost triviality to the workings of the infomachine you are watching. It may decide how fast or slowly the thing runs, and may effect its behaviour just a little around the fringes, but essentially, it is of no logical significance whatever. It is a mere body, and bodies are a dime a dozen.

The second point is harder.

People often find it difficult to keep in mind that, when they see a program text, what they’re looking at is a machine. The fact that, for the time being, the machine they’re looking at has no body confuses them With good reason: This is a subtle, maybe a confusing point. They leap to the conclusion that what programmers do amounts to arranging symbols on paper (or in a computer file) in a certain way. They look at a program and see merely a highly specialized kind of document …

This mistake is fatal to any real understanding of what software is.

Understanding software doesn’t mean understanding how program texts are arranged, it means understanding what the working infomachine itself is like—what actually happens when you embody the thing and turn it on-what kind of structure you are creating when you organize those squiggles-the shape of the finished product, the way information hums through it, the way it grows, shrinks and changes as it runs, the look and feel of the actual computational landscape. This is where software creativity is exercised. This is where the field evolves, metamorphoses and explodes. Talented software designers work with some image of the actual running program uppermost in mind. Failing to see through the program text to the machine it represents is like trying to understand musical notation without grasping that those little sticks and ellipsoids represent sounds.

This kind of information is hard to convey. You can’t directly see a running program. You can sense its workings indirectly, but you can’t open the hood and look right at the mechanism. An ironic reversal of the Rembrandt experience: Here the mind-plan is tangible, but the embodied thing itself is not.

Finally concluding

[I]f you get carried away, and start asserting that “music is the mechanical manipulation of symbols on staff paper,” “programming is mathematics,” you have committed intellectual suicide. You’ve mistaken the means for the end. You’ve cut yourself off absolutely from all real inspiration, creativity and growth. And you have failed, profoundly, to understand the character of your field.

A dangerous mistake. Where software is concerned, an all-too-natural one.

Vincent van Gogh on Why Never Learning How to Paint Helped

In a letter to his brother Theo, dated September 1882, found in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, Vincent van Gogh describes the advantages of never learning to paint.

While making it I said to myself: let me not leave before there’s something of an autumn evening in it, something mysterious, something with seriousness in it.

However, because this effect doesn’t last, I had to paint quickly. The figures were done with a few vigorous strokes with a firm brush — in one go. I was struck by how firmly the slender trunks stood in the ground — I began them using a brush, but because of the ground, which was already impasted, one brushstroke simply disappeared. Then I squeezed roots and trunks into it from the tube, and modelled them a little with the brush. Yes, now they stand in it — shoot up out of it — stand firmly rooted in it. In a sense I’m glad that I’ve never learned how to paint. Probably then I would have LEARNED to ignore effects like this. Now I say, no, that’s exactly what I want — if it’s not possible then it’s not possible — I want to try it even though I don’t know how it’s supposed to be done. I don’t know myself how I paint. I sit with a white board before the spot that strikes me — I look at what’s before my eyes — I say to myself, this white board must become something — I come back, dissatisfied — I put it aside, and after I’ve rested a little, feeling a kind of fear, I take a look at it — then I’m still dissatisfied — because I have that marvellous nature too much in mind for me to be satisfied — but still, I see in my work an echo of what struck me, I see that nature has told me something, has spoken to me and that I’ve written it down in shorthand. In my shorthand there may be words that are indecipherable — errors or gaps — yet something remains of what the wood or the beach or the figure said — and it isn’t a tame or conventional language which doesn’t stem from nature itself but from a studied manner or a system.

Vincent van Gogh on the Two Types of Idlers

The anthology Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, contains 265 of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which is nearly a third of all the surviving letters he penned.

In a long and winding letter to his brother Theo dated Thursday, 24 June 1880, van Gogh shines light on his independent mind.

Now one of the reasons why I’m now without a position, why I’ve been without a position for years, it’s quite simply because I have different ideas from these gentlemen who give positions to individuals who think like them.

Later, in the same letter, he defines two types of idlers.

I’m writing you somewhat at random whatever comes into my pen; I would be very happy if you could somehow see in me something other than some sort of idler.

Because there are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast.

There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character, through the baseness of his nature; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one. Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something, so to speak, because he doesn’t have what he would need to be productive, because the inevitability of circumstances is reducing him to this point. Such a person doesn’t always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it! That’s an entirely different idler; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one.

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember, and he has vague ideas and says to himself, ‘the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood’, and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering . ‘Look, there’s an idler’, says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration.

Ever Yours: The Essential Letters sheds light on the turbulent and beautiful life of history’s greatest luminaries.