Reading recommendation: Twofer

The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life by John Maeda

As seen through the lessons gleaned from

My Stroke of Insight, a Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.

It’s serendipity that I read these two books back to back. Though their subject matters are divergent, they both spoke to me about the same thing: that we, as designers and individuals, have the capacity to perceive the complex with sublime simplicity, and to achieve the rewards of balance in our chosen fields and lives.

Curiously, the similarity between these books begins with appearances. Their covers are remarkably alike, both white with the title centered at the top, the author’s name centered at the bottom, and an illustration space in between. On Maeda’s, the primary image has an almost Spirograph look about it, which I took to represent the balanced middle, testing boundaries and swirling back toward the middle again. The primary circular graphic appears to be bouncing off the page to the right, while a smaller circular graphic comes into the frame, higher up and to the left, suggesting a steady stream of burgeoning ideas in development. Taylor’s cover illustration, a stained-glass representation that she made of the brain, rests on her book’s central axis. This supports her intention of sharing the beauty and clarity of the brain in balance. (See Taylor's TED talk here.) 

Maeda’s book defines nine (plus “the one”) laws of simplicity that can be applied to design, technology, business, and life. They are at once universal and specific. Since Maeda suggests that balance is vital to the laws of simplicity, I thought it would be fun to explore his laws from a left-brain/right-brain point of view, exercising my new understanding of the brain thanks to Taylor’s book. My aim was to discover if the laws of simplicity themselves represent the balance required to successfully enact them. Is simplicity a matter of left-brain or right-brain dominance, or the result of each working in balance?

I found that two of the laws are more left-brain oriented. Law 1 Reduce and Law 2 Organize tap into the left brain’s capacity to assimilate huge amounts of detailed information, rapidly and concisely, while relishing the opportunity to categorize, prioritize, and file it.

Two of the laws are more right-brain oriented. Law 6 Context and Law 8 Trust rely on right brain strengths. According to Taylor, the right brain “perceives the big picture, how everything is related and how we all join together to make up the whole,” which enables us to appreciate context with respect to the object of our attention. Trust strikes me as a matter of intuition which is also the terrain of the right brain. Taylor writes that the right brain “is tuned to the subtle messages my cells communicate via gut feelings…” To trust means to invest in a gut feeling, which is certainly simpler than the alternative.

The remaining laws rely on both hemispheres working together in balance. In Law 3 Time, Maeda champions shrinking the time required for a task, hiding our awareness of its passage, and embodying time by expressing our relationship to it. Taylor points out that time is experienced quite differently by the brain’s two hemispheres. The left brain runs at a high speed, while the right brain moseys along. The left brain organizes time into past, present, future. The right brain revels in the now. Our perception of time is deeply influenced by both hemispheres.

In Law 4 Learn, Maeda uses BRAIN as an acronym to emphasize how “learning makes everything simpler.” Naturally, we need both hemispheres of our brain, working in their different ways, to learn to relate to the world around us. This also pertains to Law 5 Differences. Complexity and simplicity are defined relative to each other; their differences are essential to the existence of each. Likewise with the hemispheres of the brain, each needs the other.

Since both hemispheres of the brain participate in the limbic system which is responsible for creating feelings, Maeda’s Law 7 Emotion pertains to both the left and right brain. Maeda declares, “More emotions are better than less.” This may initially seem counterintuitive from a business perspective, but Maeda observes the power of emotion to instill interest in design, technology, business, and life. Taylor reminds us that, “…Biologically we are feeling creatures that think.” Maeda mentions that the Japanese tradition of Shintoism in his family meant believing that even inanimate objects possess a living spirit. Taylor would likely agree, explaining, “Because everything around us – the air we breathe, even the materials we use to build with, are composed of spinning and vibrating atomic particles, you and I are literally swimming in a turbulent sea of electromagnetic fields.”

In Law 9 Failure Maeda concedes that “Some things can never be made simple.” Yet he notes, “Simplicity and complexity shift with subtle changes is point of view.” Failure is all relative. Taylor similarly recognizes the role of changing a frame of reference from, for example, a left-brain orientation to a right-brain orientation in order to change perception of a situation. She writes, “I may not be in total control of what happens to my life, but I certainly am in charge of how I choose to perceive my experience.” Maeda echoes this sentiment in his final chapter, entitled “Life,” in the subtitle “Technology and life only become complex if you let it be so.”

So, on balance, the laws of simplicity appear balanced in terms of the role your right and left brain play in creating simplicity. Taylor notes, “…The world of science supports the idea that the relationship between the two cerebral hemispheres is…appropriately viewed as two complementary halves of a whole rather than as two individual entities or identities.” We are at our best, then, when both hemispheres are operating at peak performance, each in its own way, in balance.

I suppose by choosing to view these two books together, I was predisposed to see their similarity of message. Nonetheless, it’s always fun to catch wind of a zeitgeist, like balance, and indulge in its exploration.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast