Tag: John Maeda

Knowledge Makes Everything Simpler

Operating a screw is pretty simple as John Maeda points out in The Laws of Simplicity:

Just mate the grooves atop the screw’s head to the appropriate tip-slotted or Phillips-of a screwdriver. What happens next is not as simple, as you may have noted while observing a child or a woefully sheltered adult turning the screwdriver in the wrong direction.

My children remember this rule through a mnemonic taught by my spouse, “righty tighty, lefty loosy.” Personally I use the analogy of a clock, and map the clockwise motion of the hands to the positive penetration curve of the screw. Both methods are subject to a second layer of knowledge: knowing right versus left, or knowing what direction the hands of a clock turn. Thus operating a screw is not as simple as it appears. And it’s such an apparently simple object!

So while the screw is a simple design, you need to know which way to turn it. Knowledge makes everything simpler. This is true for any object, no matter how difficult. The problem with taking time to learn a task is that you often feel you are wasting time, a violation of the third Law. We are well aware of the dive-in-head-first approach-“I don’t need the instructions, let me just do it.” But in fact this method often takes longer than following the directions in the manual.

Maeda goes on to present a few of his design-informed approaches to “good learning.”

Use Your Brain

The doctrine of “the carrot or the stick” points to a choice between positive and negative motivation-a reward versus a punishment. I disagree when teachers give their students candy and other perks for correct answers, but I also disagree with a colleague at MIT who throws erasers at students that fall asleep during class.

Instead, my ten years of data as a professor show that giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge is the best motivator to learn. It is said that a massive amount of homework is a kind of reward for the average over-achieving MIT student. But after recently experiencing student life myself, I’ve lost my masochistic attitude in favor of a holistic approach:

BASICS are the beginning.
REPEAT yourself often.
AVOID creating desperation.
INSPIRE with examples.
NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

The first step in conveying the BASICS is to assume the position of the first-time learner. As the expert, playing this role is not impossible, but it is best ceded to a focus group or any other gathering of external participants. Observing what fails to make sense to the non-expert, and then following that trail successively to the very end of the knowledge chain is the critical path to success. Gathering these truths is worthwhile but can be time consuming or else done poorly. … the easiest way to learn the basics is to teach the basics yourself.

Maeda relates a lecture he attended to illustrate the point of simplicity.

A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart’s ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it. Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.

We think that REPEATing ourselves is simple or even embarrassing. One of the biggest things I’ve had to overcome with public speaking was my fear of repeating myself. I used to catch myself saying the same thing and I’d just assume that everyone heard it the first time.

AVOID-ing desperation is something to target when learning is concerned.

We all want to “wow” people from the beginning with the newest bells and whistles in an amazing new product, but sometimes “wow” can become “woah” and you need an aspirin to cope with the anxiety of the overwhelming aspects of the new. I dread upgrading software on my computer because I know how eager the new program will be to tell me its latest and most wondrous features. The strategy of “shock and awe” can discourage the shocked-and-awed as I learned by experiencing the vast chasm of knowledge between teacher and learner as an MBA student. I also became aware of how professors can unknowingly become insensitive in a university setting. A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.

“INSPIRATION,” Maeda writes, “is the ultimate catalyst for learning: internal motivation trumps external reward.” The belief in something greater than ourselves (be it a person or mission) fuels our self-belief and adds direction.

And finally. NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

Metaphors

We’ve spoken before about the power of metaphors and how they shape our thoughts. While metaphors are great, if you surprise with a metaphor you create a positive emergent effect. Or, put another way, if you can surprise along an unexpected positive dimension, you create the possibility for a non-linear response.

Metaphors are useful platforms for transferring a large body of existing knowledge from one context to another with minimal, often imperceptible, effort on the part of the person crossing the conceptual bridge. But metaphors are only deeply engaging if they SURPRISE along some unexpected, positive dimension.

The Real Reward

The real reward is learning. We learned to walk largely though trial and error. Not because daddy offered us $5. The reward was our own growth, something we’ve forgotten as we get older. We could just as easily learn today but we want immediate and usually financial reward.

Difficult tasks seem easier when they are “need to know” rather than “nice to know.” A course in history, mathematics, or chemistry is nice to know for a teenager, but completing driver’s education satisfies a fundamental need for autonomy. In the beginning of life we strive for independence, and at the end of life it is the same. At the core of the best rewards is this fundamental desire for freedom in thinking, living, and being. I’ve learned that the most successful product designs, whether simple, complex, rational, illogical, domestic, international, technophilic, or technophobic, are the ones that connect deeply to the greater context of learning and life.

The Laws of Simplicity is a great book that you should read.

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.

5 Design-Informed Approaches to Good Learning

John Maeda offers five design-informed approaches for learning.

  1. BASICS are the beginning.
  2. REPEAT yourself often.
  3. AVOID creating desperation.
  4. INSPIRE with examples.
  5. NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

John Maeda is a graphic designer and computer scientist. His book, The Laws of Simplicity, proposes ten laws for simplifying complex systems in business and life. Think of it as simplicity 101.

Maeda has some interesting things to say on learning:

Learning occurs best when there is a desire to attain specific knowledge. Sometimes that need is edification, which is itself a noble goal. Although in the majority of cases, having some kind of palpable reward, whether a letter grade or a candy bar, is necessary to motivate most people. Whether there is an intrinsic motivation like pride or an extrinsic motivation like a free cruise to the Caribbean waiting at the very end, the journey one must take to reap the reward is better when made tolerable.

Maeda believes that the best motivator to learn is giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

1. Basics are the beginning

The first step in conveying the BASICS is to assume the position of the first-time learner. As the expert, playing this role is not impossible, but it is best ceded to a focus group or any other gathering of external participants. Observing what fails to make sense to the non-expert, and then following that trail successively to the very end of the knowledge chain is the critical path to success. Gathering these truths is worthwhile but can be time consuming or else done poorly.

This echoes the first habit of effective thinking, understand deeply.

Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in.

The easiest way to learn the basics is to teach them to yourself. Maeda tells this story to illustrate the point:

A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart’s ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it. Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.

A quick way to figure out what basics you’re missing is the Feynman Technique.

2. Repeat yourself often. Repeat yourself often.

REPEAT-ing yourself can be embarrassing, especially if you are self-conscious-which most everyone is. But there’s no need to feel ashamed, because repetition works and everyone does it, including the US President and other leaders.

3. Avoid creating desperation

A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.

4. Inspire with examples

INSPIRATION is the ultimate catalyst for learning: internal motivation trumps external reward. Strong belief in someone, or else some greater power like God, helps to fuel belief in yourself and gives you direction.

5. NEVER forget to repeat yourself

forget to repeat yourself. Never Forget to repeat yourself. Never …

The Laws of Simplicity

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious,
and adding the meaningful.”

John Maeda is a graphic designer and computer scientist. His book, The Laws of Simplicity, proposes ten laws for simplifying complex systems in business and life. Think of it as simplicity 101.

Simplicity = Sanity

Technology has made our lives more full, yet at the same time we’ve become uncomfortably “full.”

Ten Laws

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 he made simple.
10 THE ONE Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.

Three Keys

In addition to the ten Laws, Maeda offers three Keys to achieving simplicity in the technology domain.

1 AWAY More appears like less by simply moving it far, far away.
2 OPEN Openness simplifies complexity.
3 POWER Use less, gain more.

Let’s take a look at a few of these.

The simplest way to achieve simplicity.

The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove. … When it is possible to reduce a system’s functionality without significant penalty, true simplification is realized.

What is simplicity about?

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

The relationship between space and clutter

At first, a larger home lowers the clutter to space ratio. But ultimately, the greater space enables more clutter.

Small changes in organization create big differences in a design.

Squint at the world.

The best designers in the world all squint when they look at something. They squint to see the forest from the trees-to find the right balance. Squint at the world. You will see more, by seeing less.

Time Savings

When forced to wait, life seems unnecessarily complex. Savings in time feel like simplicity. … A shot from the doctor hurts less when it happens quickly, and even less when we know that the shot will save our lives.

Knowledge makes everything simpler.

This is true for any object, no matter how difficult. The problem with taking time to learn a task is that you often feel you are wasting time, a violation of the third Law. We are well aware of the dive-in-head-first approach-“I don’t need the instructions, let me just do it.” But in fact this method often takes longer than following the directions in the manual.

Good Design

The best designers marry function with form to create intuitive experiences that we understand immediately-no lessons (or cursing) needed. Good design relies to some extent on the ability to instill a sense of instant familiarity.

Need to Know vs. Nice to Know

Difficult tasks seem easier when they are “need to know” rather than “nice to know.” A course in history, mathematics, or chemistry is nice to know for a teenager, but completing driver’s education satisfies a fundamental need for autonomy.

Simplicity and complexity need each other.

The more complexity there is in the market, the more that something simpler stands out.

It’s best to preserve emptiness because nothing is an important something.

The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention on what remains. More white space means that less information is presented. In turn, proportionately more attention shall be paid to that which is made less available. When there is less, we appreciate everything much more.

Some things can never be made simple. Complexity can be beautiful.

Concentrate on the deep beauty of a flower. Notice the many thin, delicate strands that emanate from the center and the sublime gradations of hue that occur even in the simplest white blossom. Complexity can be beautiful. At the same time, the beautiful simplicity of planting a seed and just adding water lies at even the most complex flower’s beginning.

Remember, “Technology and life only become complex if you let it be so.”

Learn More

Near the end of The Laws of Simplicity, Maeda offers “a few books that inspired each of the sections that I owe the debt of inspiration to mention here.”

SIMPLICITY = SANITY
The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. The need for simplicity has reached the tipping point.

REDUCE
The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz. Provides a grounding in why few can be better than many.

ORGANIZE
Notes on the Synthesis of Form, by Christopher Alexander (1964). Ideas about organization as originated in architecture.

TIME
Toyota Production System, by Ohno Taiichi (1988). Dry treatise on optimizing production from the Toyota Master.

LEARN
Motivation and Personality, by Abraham Maslow (1970). What really motivates people?

DIFFERENCES
The Innovator’s Solution, by Clay Christensen (2003). Simple explanation of changeover effects led by technology.

CONTEXT
Six Memos for the Next Millennium, by Italo Calvino (1993). Brilliantly beautiful thoughts on simply everything.

EMOTION
Emotional Design, by Donald Norman (2003). Usability guru makes a case for the useless.

TRUST
The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson (2006). Adding up all the little things really matters.

AWAY
Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford (1963). Prescient work by a man in touch with his time.

OPEN
The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki (2004). Supports the group outweighing the individual.

POWER
Cradle to Cradle, by W. McDonough and M. Braungart (2002). We’re running out of power and something has to be done.

LIFE
Disabling Professions, by Ivan Illich (1978). Reminds you that you’re becoming increasingly useless.