by Meghna MehtaApr 20, 2020
Besides being a designer I am also an academic. I have been teaching at the university of Ferrara since 2012 in various courses of the master’s degree in Industrial Product Design. As of this semester I am holding the course of Basic Design for first year students.
Therefore, lately most of my readings have been focused on brushing up on some of my favourite books that may serve to the students as an introduction to design and communication: two texts by our Italian master Bruno Munari, one by Donald Norman, one by David Ogilvy and The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda.
Our lessons were supposed to start in Ferrara on March 3, but due to the recent Coronavirus outbreak across the world, my course, just like all the others in our university, had to be turned into an online course. Currently I have uploaded the first three lessons on YouTube and I will be posting a new video every Tuesday for my students until we go back to normality. So, I have not yet met my students in person, but they have been great at keeping up and we are always in touch via email.
I read The Laws of Simplicity for the first time (seven-eight years ago), I cannot remember why, may be due to a recommendation or online research. This time around it’s for necessity, it’s in the bibliography of my course and if my students have questions I can’t be found unprepared.– Gianluca Gimini
What is the name of the book?
Gianluca Gimini (GG): Le leggi della semplicità (the Italian translation of The Laws of Simplicity.)
Who is the author?
GG: John Maeda, designer, technologist and former MIT professor.
What is the genre?
Why this book - could you please highlight its most notable aspects?
GG: The Laws of Simplicity is a great tool for whoever wants to acquire a designer’s mind set. And I mean ‘designer’ in the broadest possible way. I am sure it could be a great read for people in many other professions where there are both a certain complexity of inputs and also a need for a simple output! That could be an athlete aiming at winning a competition or a restaurant owner who wants happy customers.
Did you get any significant insights? Did you gain knowledge or did it help you unwind?
GG: I first read it when I was a very young professor, and it turned out to be both a great teaching tool for me and a revelation for the students that I was able to get involved reading it.
The biggest insight is that it teaches what simplicity is. We always tell our first year students to keep things simple and they do their best to put the suggestion to practice, but simplicity is just not easy to achieve.
A neophyte is likely to present you with something extremely banal and call it simple. But simplicity is in reality the result of a complex process of reduction. Knowing what to remove and what not from your project is actually quite hard! And this book gives some very wise advice on how simplicity can be achieved. And it gives the method!
Having met many designers, I would say most of us are very methodical, but perhaps it is not always a 100 per cent conscious process. And the more we gain experience, the faster we get to the right conclusion without even recognising the complex process the brain is going through. And this is good for your profession but a potential risk if you are also teaching design to neophytes.
Is there any one thing that you would take home from the read?
GG: Before you start designing you need to de-clutter your mind. You need to be lucid and calm. You always need to have the bigger picture in mind.
And I realise this might seem farfetched, but I actually think these principles can apply also to how we react to the Coronavirus pandemic. We have seen so much irrational behaviour on TV from literally every country in the world. Planning the way you will get through this is a design project. Not one I would have ever wanted to work on, yet one we have all been assigned. Some are only acting on impulse and panic, some people just don’t have their priorities right. Some are not looking at the bigger picture and they are behaving egoistically because they believe to be strong enough to make it whatever happens and care nothing about weaker people in their community.
What is your favourite quote from the book? Why?
Maeda likes to play with words and that’s a thing I love too. At one point, in the final chapter of the book he says something, ‘You can’t write Simplicity without writing implicit’. And I think that’s the whole point of the book. Lots of the teachings Maeda provides might even seem obvious. But speaking out loud implicit things really makes a difference.
I think of it this way; many people are great at identifying good design, good graphics or good fashion. I would go as far as saying most people are! But far less can actually produce good design/graphics/fashion. I think the big difference is that all the knowledge that is implicit in the mind of a good judge, is explicit in the mind of a designer.
When do you read?
I mostly read during the daytime. I like to be focused when I read, so before bed I actually prefer listening to music or watch stand-up comedy rather than reading.
What is your take on the book and one reason why you would recommend it?
I would recommend it but not just to anybody. I think you need to have something practical that you can apply it to. You need to have a goal and something concrete to apply all the miscellaneous examples the author provides. I would 100 per cent recommend it to all design students in any field, from product design, to communication design to architecture. And to anyone who is looking for some method in tackling complex problems.
Look up more such interesting reads from the series ‘What Am I Reading’ and watch out for more.