The Laws of Simplicity

The Laws of Simplicity

by / July 9, 2007

The Laws of Simplicity
By John Maeda
The MIT Press
Hardcover, $20.00

From elusive and button-laden remote controls and cell phones to computer manuals that come on DVDs, we're surrounded by complex technology.

That's why we so crave simplicity. We rejoice when something like the iPod comes along -- so simple, it's elegant. The same goes for a software service like Google, which stripped down its features and interface so that anyone can figure out how to use it quickly and get great value in return.

At the same time, however, these paragons of simplicity are quite complex in what they do and what we expect them to do.

As John Maeda states in his new book The Laws of Simplicity, "The process of reaching an ideal state of simplicity can be truly complex."

To help us figure out how to reach that state, Maeda, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory, has written an elegant, little book -- a sort of iPod in print -- that spells out his 10 laws for balancing simplicity and complexity. The laws are really guidelines on how to use less while actually getting more.

Maeda's first law states: "The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction." Maeda, who is also a graphic designer and visual critic, explains that reduction isn't a matter of taking away, but also hiding complexity until we need it.

In the next law, he illustrates with the iPod how "organization makes a system of many appear fewer." But the design of the iPod's interface didn't happen at once; rather it took several versions of the music player before Apple finally created "extreme simplicity" by integrating all of the features into a single, seamless control.

To help put his simplicity laws into context, Maeda repeatedly cites examples, such as law No. 3, in which he talks of radio frequency identification tags as a simple device that reduces time and creates a feeling of simplicity. The tags are similar to the role that a progress bar plays when downloading a software program, or what a numerical countdown display does for a crosswalk signal.

So when Maeda says, "Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful," what does this have to do with government CIOs? Quite a lot, I think. Government, with its many functions and constituencies, is inherently complex. Technology, which can be an "exhilarating enabler," according to Maeda, often ends up as an "exasperating disabler." IT departments and their CIOs are in a unique position to use simplicity to subtract the obvious in business applications and online services, while adding the meaningful.

Look no further than software as a service and open systems as examples of marrying simplicity to technology.

The book is 100 pages long -- a simple, but compelling read for those in government who design and implement complex services for citizens.


Tod Newcombe is the editor of Government Technology's Public CIO. 

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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