I just finished reading The Laws of Simplicity, by John Maeda. It describes ten "laws" and three "keys," two of which I found particularly striking and relevant:
Law 6 - Context - "What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral."
To illustrate this law, Maeda describes a meal he had at a friend's apartment, where all the furnishings and surfaces were white. When the meal of sushi was served, the bright colors and interesting textures of the food stood out in clear contrast to their surroundings, and Maeda's friend told him, "The taste of this meal is affected by the room we sit in." Maeda expands this notion to doing work - "The 'taste' of any activity we face might be mixed in with the distaste of the clutter of our desk. But coincidentally the uplifting smile of a nearby child can sometimes help us to tune out any messes at hand. Being attuned to what surrounds us in the ambient environment can sometimes help us manage what's immediately in front of us. Synthesizing the ambient experience of simplicity requires attention to everything that seemingly does not matter."
For me, this law captures in words the experience of doing project-oriented work as a consultant. Customers hire my company to achieve a specific goal, and I go in to meet stakeholders, gather requirements and start building toward that goal. In a statement of work it's all pretty basic, but in the periphery of my time with the customer, so many factors affect the work:
- The other demands and constraints on the time of the resources I need at the client site
- The financial health of the company (e.g., recent layoffs and the threat of a second round)
- The general level of training and tech-savviness of the end-user community
- The degree of cohesiveness or dysfunctionality of the customer's IT team
- The work space (nice conference room or storage area?)
I could go on, but it's enough to say that I'm happy to have found a concise way to sum up all the complexity around building straightforward, usable solutions for the client.
Law 10 - The One - "Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful."
This one applies to life as much as to work, and is self-evident enough that Maeda only spends a page and a half on it. It's a great ruler by which to measure any effort toward simplification.
In searching for an image to illustrate this post, I found this bonus bit of advice (which as a quote returns no results in Google and isn't specifically tagged with its keywords in Flickr):
"Design is not to be poured like gravy over a mistake."