The Simplest Way to Achieve Simplicity is Through Thoughtful Reduction

A close friend of mine argues that while we love the first part of Einstein's quote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible,” we ignore the second part “but not simpler,” which is the essence of Occam's Razor. This article is about how we can achieve simplicity through thoughtful reduction.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

— Einstein

After a bit of reflection, on twitter, I wrote: “You don't fully understand something until you can simplify it. But if all you do is simplify it, you don't understand it.

The complexity of “but not simpler” is where we struggle.

This is where our brain struggles and tries to avoid work. The struggle is where the real learning comes from.

We are pattern matching creatures — once we find a solution that works, we close our minds to alternative ideas.

A key element of simplicity and understanding is the thoughtful reduction of the unnecessary.

An inversion if you will. And yet one I wish more organizations would consider. While it's counter-intuitive, subtraction is often more powerful than addition.


In The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda writes:

The easiest way to simplify a system is to remove functionality. Today's DVD, for instance, has too many buttons if all you want to do is play a movie. A solution could be to remove the buttons for Rewind, Forward, Eject, and so forth until only one button remains: Play.

But what if you want to replay a favorite scene? Or pause the movie while you take that all-important bathroom break? The fundamental question is, where's the balance between simplicity and complexity?

Simplicity Through Thoughtful Reduction

On the one hand, you want a product or service to be easy to use; on the other hand you want it to do everything that a person might want it to do.

The process of reaching an ideal state of simplicity can be truly complex, so allow me to simplify it for you. The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove.

It's not about removing for the sake of removing.

When it is possible to reduce a system's functionality without significant penalty, true simplification is realized. When everything that can be removed is gone, a second battery of methods can be employed. 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.


If you're short on time you can stop here. If you're interested in SHE (Shrink, Hide, Embody) keep reading.

Size matters.

The smaller the object, the more forgiving we can be when it misbehaves.

Making things smaller doesn't make them necessarily better, but when made so we tend to have a more forgiving attitude towards their existence. A larger-than-human-scale object demands its rightful respect, whereas a tiny object can be something that deserves our pity. When comparing a kitchen spoon to a construction bulldozer the larger scale of the vehicle instills fear, while the rounded utensil appears harmless and inconsequential. The bulldozer can run you over and end your life, but if the spoon were to fall on top of you, your life would likely be spared. Guns, mace cannisters, and little karate experts of course are the exception to this rule of “fear the large, endear the small.”

Technology is SHRINK-ing.

The computational power of a machine that sixty years ago weighed 60,000 pounds and occupied 1,800 square feet can now be packed onto a sliver of metal less than a tenth the size of the nail on your pinkie. Integrated circuit (IC) chip technology-commonly referred to as “computer chips”-allows far greater complexity at a much tinier scale. IC chips lie at the heart of the problem of complex devices today as they enable increasingly smaller devices to be created. A kitchen spoon and a mobile phone can share the exact same physical dimensions, yet the many IC's embedded inside the phone make the device easily more complex than the bulldozer-so looks can be deceiving.

Thus while IC's are a primary driver of complexity in modern day objects, they also enable the ability to shrink a frighteningly complex machine to the size of a cute little gumdrop. The smaller the object is, the lower the expectations; the more IC's that are inside, the greater the power. In this age of wireless technology that connects the IC inside the phone with all the computers in the world, power has now become absolute. There is no turning back to the age when large objects were complex and small objects were simple.

Lessening the inevitable complicating blow of these technologies by way of SHRINK may seem like a form of deception, which it is. But anything that can make the medicine of complexity go down easier is a form of simplicity, even when it is an act of deceit.


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. A classical example of this technique is the Swiss army knife. Only the tool you wish to use is exposed, while the other blades and drivers are hidden.


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. The ear-catching “click” when opening a Motorola Razr cell phone or the cinematic performance of an on-screen visual in Apple's Mac OS X creates the satisfaction of owning the power to will complexity from simplicity. Thus complexity becomes a switch that the owner can choose to flip into action on their own terms, and not by their device's will.

SHRINK-ing an object lowers expectations, and the hiding of complexities allows the owner to manage the expectations himself. Technology creates the problem of complexity, but also affords new materials and methods for the design of our relationship with complexities that shall only continue to multiply.


As features go into hiding and products shrink, it becomes ever more necessary to embed the object with a sense of the value that is lost after HIDE and SHRINK. Consumers will only be drawn to the smaller, less functional product if they perceive it to be more valuable than a bigger version of the product with more features. Thus the perception of quality becomes a critical factor when making the choice of less over more.

And in contrast to Sanjay Bakshi's pragmatic take on the luxury goods business, Maeda takes a different approach.

Embodying an object with properties of real quality is the basis of the luxury goods industry and is rooted in their use of precious materials and exquisite craftsmanship. Relatedly, a designer of Ferrari cars once told me that a Ferrari has fewer parts than a common car, but the parts themselves are significantly better than anything else on this earth. This elegant tale of construction uses the simple philosophy that if good parts can make a great product, incredible parts can lead to a legendary one.


It is necessary to advertise qualities that cannot be conveyed implicitly, especially when the message of embodiment simply tells the truth.

The first law can be summed up as:

Lessen what you can and conceal everything else without losing the sense of inherent value. EMBODY-ing a greater sense of quality through enhanced materials and other messaging cues is an important subtle counterbalance to SHRINK-ing and HIDEing 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. Small is better when SHE'd.

The Laws of Simplicity is worth reading in its entirety.