On Simplicity

by F.

From the FT‘s review of The Laws of Simplicity. Here’s the money quote:

Ultimately Maeda fails to obey his own 10th law: simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful. “The best designers in the world all squint when they look at something,” Maeda suggests at one point. Squinters at his book will see some bright flashes of meaningful analysis, but will open their eyes to find a lot that is obvious, too.

More:

The Laws of Simplicity
By John Maeda
The MIT Press, $20, £12.95

The technology that consumers love most is now pared down. Bells and whistles are out and simplicity rules. Apple Computer’s iPod music player has achieved ubiquity with the sleekness of its design rather than the fullness of its features.

Google has stuck to a mostly white page with a single search box; the addition of a single word can cause uproar in the blogosphere. Premium consumer electronics brands such as Bang & Olufsen do provide superior quality, but their luxury status also relies on an uncluttered interface.

John Maeda, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, notes such examples as he draws up 10 laws of simplicity to help achieve this goal. A shame, then, that he is given to introducing un­nec­essary complexities and run-away solipsisms in an ap­parent effort to lend profundity to observations that are often, well, rather simple….

Maeda is at his best when he loses sight of the supposed overall architecture to his quest and focuses on a narrow topic such as the iPod.

He draws on his unusual experience as artist-writer-computer scientist to produce a convincing appraisal of the positioning of the iPod’s buttons through three successive redesigns.

“Groups are good; too many groups are bad because they counteract the goal of grouping in the first place,” Maeda concludes. “Blurred groupings are powerful because they can ap-pear even more simple, but at the cost of becoming more abstract, less concrete.”

Maeda’s frequent personal references occasionally hit the mark when he concentrates on those that say something about modern working and living: “I’m the guy who unties his shoes and removes his laptop from his bag before he reaches the table at airport security, in the hope of passing through with the speed of an Olympic downhill skier.”

Technology can help our constant war with time, or appear to. So a “progress bar” on a computer program allows the user to measure waiting time, just as digital countdowns in some waiting rooms provide individuals with solace as they try to negotiate the more benign bureaucracies.

Complicating his rule book somewhat, Maeda runs briefly through three keys at the end of the book: “away”, “open” and “power”. The brevity is regrettable because in these short paragraphs he starts to extend simplicity into important areas.

Google and Salesforce.com with their “software as a service” represent “away”: the computing power resides somewhere else, possibly at the other side of the world, while the search-engine user, for example, has the pleasurable simplicity of a pure blank box.

He is not afraid to take a pop at the fashionable open-source software community, which, like Google and its peers, is another challenger to the established model of Microsoft, but ultimately concludes that a business model can evolve from the “for free” networks of high-minded individuals designing and improving software.

In “power” he addresses the energy crunch facing the US and sketches simpler ways to design our lives. “The number of people who will see the benefit of this approach will determine the terminal point on the progress bar of our glorious planet earth,” he warns.

Ultimately Maeda fails to obey his own 10th law: simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful. “The best designers in the world all squint when they look at something,” Maeda suggests at one point.

Squinters at his book will see some bright flashes of meaningful analysis, but will open their eyes to find a lot that is obvious, too.

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