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5 Design-Informed Approaches to Good Learning

John Maeda elaborates on these five tips for learning below.

  1. BASICS are the beginning.
  2. REPEAT yourself often.
  3. AVOID creating desperation.
  4. INSPIRE with examples.
  5. NEVER forget to repeat yourself.


John Maeda is a graphic designer and computer scientist. His book, The Laws of Simplicity, proposes ten laws for simplifying complex systems in business and life. Think of it as simplicity 101.

Maeda has some interesting things to say on learning:

Learning occurs best when there is a desire to attain specific knowledge. Sometimes that need is edification, which is itself a noble goal. Although in the majority of cases, having some kind of palpable reward, whether a letter grade or a candy bar, is necessary to motivate most people. Whether there is an intrinsic motivation like pride or an extrinsic motivation like a free cruise to the Caribbean waiting at the very end, the journey one must take to reap the reward is better when made tolerable.

Maeda believes that the best motivator to learn is giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

1. Basics

The first step in conveying the BASICS is to assume the position of the first-time learner. As the expert, playing this role is not impossible, but it is best ceded to a focus group or any other gathering of external participants. Observing what fails to make sense to the non-expert, and then following that trail successively to the very end of the knowledge chain is the critical path to success. Gathering these truths is worthwhile but can be time consuming or else done poorly.

This echoes the first habit of effective thinking, understand deeply.

Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in.

The easiest way to learn the basics is to teach them to yourself. Maeda tells this story to illustrate the point:

A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart’s ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it. Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.

A quick way to figure out what basics you’re missing is the Feynman Technique.

2. Repeat

REPEAT-ing yourself can be embarrassing, especially if you are self-conscious-which most everyone is. But there’s no need to feel ashamed, because repetition works and everyone does it, including the US President and other leaders.

3. Avoid desperation

A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.

4. Inspire

INSPIRATION is the ultimate catalyst for learning: internal motivation trumps external reward. Strong belief in someone, or else some greater power like God, helps to fuel belief in yourself and gives you direction.


forget to repeat yourself. Never Forget to repeat yourself. Never …

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