The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda: Summary & Notes

Rated: 6/10

Available at: Amazon

ISBN: 0262134721

Related: The Design of Everyday Things, Universal Principles of Design


This is a relatively easy read from John Maeda, who was a professor at the MIT Media Lab, before becoming President at the Rhode Island School of Design and then venturing into the corporate world.

The book itself presents laws he has created for simplifying both your life, and the things you may work on or design.

The laws presented are useful, and the book is short.  However, most of the core, actionable content could have been presented in a long blog post.


Simplicity Sanity

  • There are three flavours of simplicity discussed here, where the successive set of three Laws (1 to 3, 4 to 6, 7 to 9) correspond to increasingly complicated conditions of simplicity: basic, intermediate, and deep.
  • Of the three clusters, basic simplicity (1 to 3) is immediately applicable to thinking about the design of a product or the layout of your living room.
  • On the other hand, intermediate simplicity (4 to 6) is more subtle in meaning, and deep simplicity (7 to 9) ventures into thoughts that are still ripening on the vine.

Law 1: REDUCE - The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. 

When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.

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.
  • Fragility is an essential counteracting force to complexity because it can instill pity— which by coincidence also occurs in the word SIMPLICITY!
  • A further collection of these types of designs can be browsed at


  • 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.
  • 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.


  • EMBODY-ing quality is primarily a business decision, more than one of design or technology. The quality can be actual, as embodied by better materials and craftsmanship; or the quality can be perceived, as portrayed in a thoughtful marketing campaign. Exactly where to invest— real or believed quality— to get maximum return is a question with no single definitive answer.


  • EMBODY-ing a greater sense of quality through enhanced materials and other messaging cues is an important subtle counterbalance to SHRINK-ing and HIDE-ing 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.

Law 2: ORGANIZE - Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.

To do it: ad hoc process I call SLIP: SORT, LABEL, INTEGRATE, PRIORITIZE

  • SORT: Write down on small post-it notes each datum to be SLIP-ped. Move them around on a flat surface to find the natural groupings.
  • LABEL: Each group deserves a relevant name. If a name cannot be decided upon, an arbitrary code can be assigned such as a letter, number, or color.
  • INTEGRATE: Whenever possible, integrate groups that appear significantly like each other.
  • PRIORITIZE: Finally collect the highest priority items into a single set to ensure that they receive the most attention.

Law 3: TIME - Savings in time feel like simplicity.

  • Shrinking the time of a process can sometimes only go so far, and so an alternative means to “saving” time is to hide its passage by simply removing time displays from the environment.

Law 4: LEARN - Knowledge makes everything simpler.

Learning occurs best when there is a desire to attain specific knowledge.

To teach:

  • BASICS are the beginning.
  • REPEAT yourself often.
  • AVOID creating desperation.
  • INSPIRE with examples.
  • NEVER forget to repeat yourself.
  • REPEAT-ting yourself can be embarrassing, especially if you are self-conscious— which most everyone is.
  • AVOID-ing desperation is something to target when learning is concerned.
  • INSPIRATION is the ultimate catalyst for learning: internal motivation trumps external reward.
  • Feeling safe (by avoiding desperation), feeling confident (by mastering the basics), and feeling instinctive (by conditioning through repetition) all satisfy rational needs.
  • NEVER forget to repeat yourself. Might I have already said that?
  • 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.

Law 5: DIFFERENCES - Simplicity and complexity need each other.

Law 6: CONTEXT - What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.

  • The sixth Law emphasizes the importance of what might become lost during the design process. That which appears to be of immediate relevance may not be nearly as important compared to everything else around. Our goal is to achieve a kind of enlightened shallowness.
  • The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention on what remains.
  • There is an important tradeoff between being completely lost in the unknown and completely found in the familiar. Too familiar can have the positive aspect of making complete sense, which to some can seem boring; too unknown can have the negative connotations of danger, which to some can seem a thrill.

Law 7: EMOTION - More emotions are better than less.

  • But I use a specific principle to determine just the right kind of more: “feel, and feel for.” Everything starts from being sensitive to your own feelings. Do you know how you feel? Right now? By connecting with the emotional intelligence inside yourself, the next step is to empathize with the environment that surrounds you.
  • Much is said about the development from child to adult as a gradual process of neutering emotional output.
  • While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.
  • Our society, systems, and artifacts require active engagement in care, attention, and feeling— the business value may not be immediately apparent. But the fulfillment from living a meaningful life is the ROE (Return on Emotion).
  • A certain kind of more is always better than less— more care, more love, and more meaningful actions. I don’t think I need to say anything more really.

Law 8: TRUST

  • In simplicity we trust.
  • The goal of LEAN BACK is to achieve relaxation as the desired state.
  • Overconfidence is usually the enemy of greatness, and there’s little room for personal ego when pleasing a customer is the true priority.
  • The more a system knows about you, the less you have to think. Conversely, the more you know about the system, the greater control you can exact.

Law 9: FAILURE - Some things can never be made simple.

  • There’s always an ROF (Return On Failure) when you try to simplify— which is to learn from your mistakes.
  • Deeming something as complex or simple requires a frame of reference.

Law 10: THE ONE - Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.

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

LIFE - Technology and life only become complex if you let it be so.

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

Three Keys

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

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