John Maeda says if he could simplify the world, he would first streamline the complexity of the government.
“Look at the Medicare Web site,” he says. “It’s so complex. You could have two Ph.D.s and three master’s degrees, but you just can’t understand it.”
Recently, Maeda wrote, The Laws of Simplicity, a guide for business, technology, design, and life that teaches us how to need less and get more. The 100-page book is thoughtful and personal and details 10 laws that can make business and life more simple.
A world-renowned graphic designer, visual artist, and computer scientist at the MIT Media Lab — who was named by Esquire magazine as one of the 21 most important people for the 21st century — Maeda has showcased his work in Paris, Tokyo, London, New York, and San Francisco, and his work will be on display this fall at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He has won the Presidential Design Award and also won top design awards in Japan and Germany. He now co-directs the Media Lab’s design-oriented Physical Language Workshop and its SIMPLICITY consortium.
“Technology has made our lives full, but now we feel they’re too full,” he says. “We’re rebelling against technology that’s too complicated.”
Maeda says that while there will always be gadget geeks who love the complexity of an electronic device, most of us yearn for a DVD player whose programming is intuitive, an online newspaper that can deliver stories in a quick, easy-to-read format, or a cell phone whose instruction book has fewer than 100 pages. We dream of devices that give us joy, rather than feelings of inadequacy.
“We live in a world where unless you’re getting more, you don’t feel like you’re getting anything. But at the same time, we’re drowning in the functionality of features,” he says. “I’m not saying we should throw away our cell phones, email, and PDAs. But the question is, how do we help industry to create technology that’s sensitive to our needs?”
As the world grows more complex, Maeda offers us 10 laws for simplicity. For example:
Law 3 discusses saving TIME. Maeda says each person spends about one hour each day waiting. Whenever you spend less time waiting for water to boil, for a Web page to load, for the traffic to ease — the complex feels simpler.
Law 5 states DIFFERENCES. Simplicity and complexity need each other. We appreciate something more when we can compare it to something else. The more complexity there is in the market, the more something simpler stands out.
And Law 9 is FAILURE. Some things cannot be made simple. He writes: “Some things I would never want to become simple — that includes my close relationships and my collection of art.”
“These laws are completely about balance,” Maeda says. “We desire simplicity because the world is so complex, but if we ever managed to totally simplify, you can bet we would want to go back to complexity. You can’t have one without the other. That’s what makes it wonderful.”
Maeda keeps an active simplicity blog. He keeps it, he says, because he loves the idea of sharing everything, an idea he learned from his father.
Maeda learned not only sharing but also learned simplicity and art from his father, a Japanese immigrant and a cook, who later became a tofu maker. Raised in Seattle, Maeda loved watching his father create elaborate dishes, beautifully present the food, and share it generously with his friends.
“Every dish was ornate and had structure to it. I learned my art from him, the art of visual cooking. Then I translated it into poster art, prints, and video. The deeper ideas of the presentation were always with spirit in mind.”
Always, he says, when his father cooked for guests, he’d serve his friends the best food and save the worst parts for himself. Once, Maeda asked him why, and his Dad replied, “Because the joy is not to eat. The joy is to serve.”
It was a big lesson in generosity, Maeda says. “In my father’s world, I saw a way to connect with other people that I’m always yearning for. Life was simple.”