Prepared for The Marker Innovation Conference
Avenue, Ben Gurion Airport, Sept. 21/2008

How many of you in the audience are industrial designers?

I argue today that all of us are designers. And we are all, every one of us, working on the same project.

We are all designing our lives. Even the failure to design our life, because we fail to think about it, is itself a design, though always a poor one.

What is the single most powerful principle for design innovation, for optimally and innovatively designing our lives, our organizations, and our products and services?

It is, I would argue: Simplicity! Simplicity is simply wonderful. This is not just my view. It is the view of a brilliant MIT Media Lab computer engineer and video artist named John Maeda, who has now become the President of RISD – Rhode Island School of Design. His book is called The Laws of Simplicity* and it is only 100 pages long.

To follow the Simplicity Principle, I have shortened by talk from 30 to 20 minutes and eliminated many slides. 
In my short talk I aspire not only to interest you, the audience, but at least for some, to change your lives.  This is hutzpah but I will try anyway.

Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) uses five innovation ‘templates’. The first template they list is called “subtraction”**. Remove things. This is counterintuitive. Innovators usually assume that you innovate by adding features on to existing products and services. But the most powerful innovations are those using subtraction. Subtraction is a way to increase simplicity – and simplicity is an increasingly scarce value, in today’s complex world. Today one of the scarcest resources is “cognitive capacity” – space in our brain. If you can save yourself and the world brain energy by simplifying, you can achieve greatness.    
Author John Maeda suggests the following: Let every software company reduce the number of features in its software every year by 10 per cent, and charge 10 per cent more. Would this work? Would you pay more for less? Is this not a stupid idea? Have any of you tried Office 2007 – a ten-ton burden piled onto the back of a struggling donkey? Most of those ten tons of features are not useful or used. 

Think about your organizational chart. Can you eliminate one or more layers? If we have learned anything about innovativeness, it is that layers of hierarchy are its enemy. Flatten your organization. Simplify. Subtract layers. And you will quickly see not only savings but results.    

John Maeda offers 10 Laws of Simplicity***. I will describe only the first three of his Ten Commandments and the last one. They are: Reduce; Organize; Save Time; and Unify. 

Law #1. REDUCE. “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction”. Ask yourself, about your lives, about your products, and about your organizations:

How simple can I make it?  

How complex does it HAVE to be?

Consider the iPod. It evolved from a wheel with four buttons, to a wheel with four discrete buttons, and finally, using Subtraction, into a single button or wheel. 

The First Law of Simplicity can change your life.      

I would like to ask each person in the audience to reflect on the following power question:

What single thing can you eliminate from your life, that would raise its quality?

Can you take away something, inessential, time-wasting, energy-wasting, and improve your life? Can you do it right now? If not, why not?

In innovating your products, how can you practice Subtraction? 

There are three ways. 

First, Shrink. Maeda says, “the smaller the object, the more forgiving we are when it misbehaves.” For instance, our children. 

Second, Hide. Hide the complexity. Maeda cites the Swiss Army knife. Blades not in use are hidden.  

Third, embody. Embed quality in the product so that it is perceived. Bang and Olufsen’s remote is thin and small, but is made heavy intentionally to convey quality.

Law #2. ORGANIZE. “Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.” Simplify complexity by organizing it. You do this by sorting, by grouping and by combining. When you do, you will naturally eliminate many things that are redundant. Disorganized complexity is chaos. Organized complexity, when done well, becomes simplicity. 

Law #3. TIME. “Savings in time feel like simplicity”. By shortening my talk by 10 minutes, I believe I make it simpler to understand. By shortening my sentences, I save you the reader time. By shortening the words, I save you time and effort. After writing this talk, I went over it and replaced long words with short ones.    

IBM’s Global Services division accounts for over half IBM’s global revenue. A decade or so, it did not exist. It is a good example of the simplicity laws. IBM has a customer-facing representative  diagnose the client’s needs, then build a virtual organization using a matrix system to tailor precisely the required services. The process is complex, but it is complex in order to deliver simplicity to the client, and to save the client’s time. We can only justify a complex organization if it makes our customers’ lives simpler.

Law #10. THE ONE. “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful”. 

Consider Einstein. His equation E = mc2 was initially quite complicated. One by one, Einstein eliminated every variable that was not essential. The result linked energy and matter in the simplest, clearest and most powerful way possible****.   

Einstein himself warned us about simplicity.

Simplify as much as possible, he said – but not more so. 

If you subtract essential things from your lives, your organizations, your products, you oversimplify and create destruction. Think about this graph: 

I strongly believe that in at least 90 per cent of all cases, in our lives, our organizations, our products, we are in the “too complex” area rather than in the “too simple” area. And if we err, better to err toward simplicity than complexity. The cost of error is far less.

In your lives, and in your products, you should allow “addition” – the usual procedure for innovation, adding features – if and only if it creates true value, and adds meaning for yourself and for your clients. Addition should be subject to very stringent hurdles. Every addition creates added complexity – for yourself, for your organization, and above all for your clients. Make certain that in your cost-benefit calculation, you consider  the hidden cost of added complexity, vs. the value it creates

The value and beauty of simplicity are old and eternal truths.  

– St. Thomas Aquinas said, “If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices”.

– Scientists have long used the principle of Occam’s Razor: “All other things being equal, the simplest theory is the most likely to be true”.

– Da Vinci said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” 

– The novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupery said: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” 

Subtract, my friends. Simplify. 

What can you take away?  

And what will you take away from our conversation?

* The Laws of Simplicity (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life) (Hardcover) by John Maeda, MIT Press: 100 pages, 2006
** Jacob Goldenberg, Roni Horowitz, Amnon Levav, David Mazursky, “Finding Your Innovation Sweet Spot”, Harvard Business Review, March 2003
*** See his website:
**** See David Bodanis.  E=mc2: A biography of the world’s most famous equation.  Walker & Co.: New York, NY, 2000