The Laws of Simplicity: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: May 9th, 2011 by bobmorris

Laws of SimplicityThe Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life
John Maeda
The MIT Press (2006)

Getting to “the other side of complexity

Almost immediately after I began to read this book, I was reminded of two quotations, the first from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I do not care a fig for simplicity this side of complexity but I would give my life for the other side of complexity.” Also from Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Further along into John Maeda’s discussion of each of the ten “laws” and his explanation of why he thinks that “simplicity = sanity,” I was reminded of this passage from William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Holmes was right, acknowledging how difficult it is to proceed through complexity to simplicity. In fact, I view complexity in that context as a crucible. More specifically, as container into which alchemists once placed raw materials and subjected them to intense heat, hoping to produce a pure and precious metal, perhaps gold. Like the falcon in Yeats’s poem, the human mind circles high above more than it can possibly absorb and process, then make sense of. This is what William Wordsworth suggests in “The World Is Too Much with Us”:

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

And this is why Maeda believes that “simplicity = sanity.” In a world that seems to become more complex each day, his on-going journey of discovery he realized how complex a topic simplicity really is, “and I don’t pretend to have solved the puzzle…[and] am inspired to grapple with this puzzle many more years…Like all man-made `laws’ [mine] do not exist in the absolute sense – to break them is no sin. However you may find them useful in your own search for simplicity and It would be a disservice to Maeda as well as to those who read this review to list the ten “Laws.” They are best revealed in context, within the frame-of-reference he creates for each. The same is true of the three “Keys to achieving simplicity in the technology domain” with which Maeda concludes his narrative. “Rarely do I have answers, but instead I have a lot of questions just like you.” I am amazed by how much material he provides within only 100 pages. Additional resources can be obtained (at no cost) by visiting

It is worth noting that when Maeda “set out with youthful zeal to attack the simplicity question, [he] felt that complexity was destroying our world and had to be stopped!” Presumably others have experienced the same frustrations I have encountered when struggling to understand the directions provided in an operations manual or terms and conditions of a service warranty or when struggling to obtain assistance from a customer service representative who speaks slowly enough and clearly enough to be understood. Why does it have to be so (bleeping) complicated? After speaking at a conference, Maeda was approached by a 73-year old artist who took him aside and said, “The world’s [begin italics] always [end italics] been falling apart. So relax.” Maeda suggests that his reader take the same advice “and try to LEAN BACK while you read this book, if you can.”

John Maeda may not get you to the “other side of complexity” but he can help you to preserve your sanity meanwhile. If that isn’t a value-added benefit, I don’t know what one is.

You may also wish to check out his most recently published book, Redesigning Leadership, in which he shares his thoughts and feelings about what has happened (and not happened) since he stepped down as head of MIT’s Media Lab to became president of Rhode Island School of Design.

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