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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Review: "The Laws of Simplicity" by John Maeda

John Maeda's "The Laws of Simplicity" has been popping up on a lot of the best-of-design-books lists I've seen lately (see Speak Up, for example). I received a copy for Christmas, and recently buzzed through it during a couple of commutes (Maeda tells us the book was purposefully limited to 100 pages to allow just such quick reading -- a prime example of form following function, I suppose).

The book is intended as a primer in the merits of simplicity for not only designers but also technophiles of various stripes and business leaders as well. The wide range of intended audiences also results in a style that is rather jarring for those used to a different style of writing about design -- the book often feels like a mix of design criticism, personal anecdotes, and the often-mushy self-help language of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"-type bromides intended for wealthy executives.

Another consequence of the wide range of audience is that many of the laws are fairly obvious to anyone with a basic grounding in the theory of design -- groupings help communicate (Law 2, "Organize"), whitespace is good (Law 6, "Context") -- and they can all be effectively summed up (the ultimate in simplicity) in the final law: "Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful."

The one idea that did resonate with me in a way that had never struck me before was the idea that simplicity requires complexity (Law 5, "Simplicity and complexity need each other). He uses musical rhythm as an example: the simplest rhythms have their place, but are rendered far more effective in contrast with more complex ones. This is, of course, the very essence of something I am very passionate about: the writing and arranging of pop music. What makes a great pop song is often, the establishment of a pattern which is then suddenly changed (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, BRIDGE), or stood on its ear (building up to a chorus only to go back to the verse).

All told, "The Laws of Simplicity" is an interesting book if for no other reason than that it may give designers something to recommend that their clients read as a justification for why they really don't need to make the logo bigger; most designers, though, will already have internalized most of these "laws" already.

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