Technology and ambition fills our lives. As parents, professionals, friends and members of gyms, the edict to “Be All You Can Be” is a self-escalating puzzle.
Simplicity and transparency have emerged as important brand promises in promoting political candidates, financial services, packaged goods and foods, and technology. It is easy to recall recent cases in which experts have been wrong about the complexities of finance, the risks of war, and costs of globalism. Simplicity increasingly equates to credibility and trust.
As a designer and legal marketer, simplicity is never far from my mind. So I’d like to recommend and share some thoughts about two texts which discuss simplicity as both a legal principle and as a design ethic.
- Simple Rules for a Complex World by the University of Chicago Law School’s Richard Epstein
- The Laws of Simplicity by RISD President and MIT Media Lab Professor John Maeda
Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity
It’s a quick read, written for the layman in us all. I like that Maeda imposed a limit of 100 pages for himself, an idea consistent with his Third Law: “Savings in time feels like simplicity.”
Sushi Chef as Role Model
I bought in to Maeda’s thinking when he proposed sushi chefs as role models for designers. When I implement design work, I often think of it as making sushi. After all, implementation of the craft part of our work is where it lives or dies. And we usually do it under deadline. Though managing a sushi restaurant takes strategy, without the mastery of the implementation it would be just talk. Once the strategic elements are set, implementation proceeds as an inexorable outcome of investment, skill and bandwidth.
Maeda describes the sushi chef’s unique exposure to customers, as they often operate in front of their diners. This provides accountability, but also greater knowledge of the the customer and the entire restaurant. Such work requires a confidence, or “konjo,” which enables them to focus their skill on expert delivery. In digital design, here’s absolutely a moment when the business mind that drives strategy steps aside and takes a back seat to the “konjo” mind of implementation.
Do We Design Features or Experiences?
Our technical thinking leads us to assign value to the creation of new features, not their thoughtful removal. It’s hard to imagine Microsoft removing some of Excel’s features, simplifying the user experience, and then charging 10% more for the improved, streamlined product. Yet users everywhere demand better product experiences. And at the core of their request is a hunger for simplicity.
How Trek Guiding Prepares Us to Design
Long ago I took groups of people into mountains and down rivers to hard-to-find places. I learned a lot about being comfortably lost. We called it “wearing the dress of life loosely,” or “enlightened shallowness.” We’d focus on knowing what was necessary to make good progress in the face of informed uncertainty.
That ambiguity that travelers face is also what consumers experience when using a new product. They’re on an adventure. People are affirmed by the productive disorientation of learning to use an iPod or a Flip video camera. Maeda describes how to provide users enough context so that they can make progress without a lot of specifics. His book is a fast read, and one you can return to easily to read just a few pages for a quick snack of inspiration.
Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World
Also written for the layman, Epstein’s book on simplicity is a manifesto. As such, in 300 pages he rolls out persuasive arguments, statistics, and doses of libertarian political philosophy that promote more simple laws.
Both Maeda and Epstein recognize the virtues of simplicity are not absolute. Epstein points out that, relative to the state of nature, any legal system is complex. The absence of law is a conceptually simple system; however, it results in order based purely on force, and brings about a Hobbesian world in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Likewise, Maeda points out that simplicity must exist with a background of complexity. Making a product simple may require a longer and more thoughtful design proces. Allowing a product to embody the complexity of its design and manufacture may be faster and less expensive.
Illusions of Perfection Drive Complexity and Diminish Returns
The problem with simple laws is that they are necessarily imperfect. Special cases will exist where, short of case-by-case judgment, unfortunate outcomes will occur. So complexity is introduced to the extent the law seeks ultimately just outcomes. Of course, the problems with this are both that perfection is impossible and that its pursuit introduces new vulnerabilities.
As an example, a flat tax code would be a simple way to fund government. However, by adding nuance, tax laws can made more fair through a progressive rate. Further, discounts may encourage home ownership, business investment in specific neighborhoods, holding stocks for the long term, buying certain types of automobiles, or reducing the tax burden of families with health or childcare expenses. Unfortunately, constant elaboration of our tax system has added thousands of pages of regulations.
Today, no legal professional fully understands all of tax law. This introduces the opportunity for near-limitless gamesmanship, diminishes the collection of taxes and increases the cost of compliance. More simple rules would provide certainty about how to effectively comply with law and avoid the risk of erroneous fines.
The comparison between simple and complex rules should be conducted not in the language of aspiration, but in the language of realizable achievement. It is the more humble task which simple rules best discharge, for their relative cost-effectiveness and certainty forestall the vast amounts of intrigue brought into the legal system by the relentless, if naive, pursuit of perfection. – Richard Epstein
What’s Legally “Simple” and What’s “Complex”
Professor Epstein proposes four attributes that drive legal complexity:
1. Length and density;
2. Technical language requiring expert interpretation;
3. Substantial overlap with other laws which may superceded;
4. A lack of certainty in enforcement and prosecution.
Simple laws are easier to obey, administer and enforce without the additional costs of error.
Is Simplicity the Good Manners of Our Age?
In a world which demands “more, done better, and faster,” simplicity has taken on the power of a moral imperative.
Perhaps simplicity in communication and design is the good manners of our age. As we encounter increasingly specialized and complex requirements in life, making one’s communications simple may be as important as making them polite. In this new light, making society’s laws more simple may make them more effective, more predictable and therefore more just to those whose lives they govern.