Success thru simplicity, part 3: Achieving simplicity

This post is the third in a series on success thru simplicity. Part one focused on why simplicity is “sticky.” Part two explained why simplicity creates brand value. This part offers techniques for how to achieve simplicity.

“Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
— Albert Einstein

If you believe that Einstein was correct, how do you know when you’ve reached that perfect point of simplification, and how do you get there? In computer programming there is something called Tesler’s Law that says systems are complex, and either the engineer or the user must deal with that complexity one way or another. If the engineer doesn’t put in the effort, the user will suffer. Tesler believes that in most cases the engineer should spend the time needed to develop more complex code in order to simplify things for users — because while there may be only a few engineers building something, there are potentially millions of users who could benefit from that simplicity. It could take the engineers many extra hours to save the users just a few seconds each, but according to Tesler that’s an appropriate trade-off.


I suggest that this is the same model we should use in marketing. In parts one and two of this blog series I cited a number of studies that prove the value of simplicity in brand marketing. Now it is up to us as marketers to apply the rigor to achieve the greatest simplicity possible for those who consume our marketing and communications programs.

We must apply the rigor required to analyze all the relevant data and filter it through the lens of a deep understanding of the target audience. The challenge is to arrive in a place that delights, rather than overwhelms, the audience while giving them whatever it is they are seeking — something that is “useful, beautiful or entertaining,” in the words of Luke Sullivan. Then, as Einstein noted, we must know where to stop so we don’t oversimplify and become simplistic, and thereby not as relevant, useful, beautiful or entertaining as our audience expects. Erika Andersen says in a Forbes post that:

“…simplicity is great until you take it too far, and then it stops working. That’s the essence ofthe difference between simple and simplistic, in my mind: you’ve crossed over into simplistic when you try to reduce a complex problem so far that you factor out critical elements.”


Marketing programs that are simplified in the right way deliver business results more efficiently. Marketers who employ simplicity can outsmart rather than outspend their competitors. But to get it right — to understand what to do and what not to do in the search for simplicity — requires doing the hard work. It’s not easy to get to simplicity, but the effort pays.

Five methods for achieving simplicity

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that you want simplicity, but how do we get it? How do we apply the rigor required by Tesler’s Law? Here are five suggestions:

First, try to apply Occam’s Razor to your situation. Often misstated as something like “When weighing several options, if everything else is equal the simpler option is always the best,” Occam’s Razor more accurately says that “Among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” I actually like both of these ideas, subtly different as they are. The latter, more accurate definition helps ensure relevance and efficacy.

Second, consider applying the 80/20 rule to your marketing efforts:

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

More and more, marketers are squeezed between tight budgets and the demand for better (and more measurable) results. One solution is to identify the 20% of marketing activities that are most likely to have 80% of the impact on achieving objectives — then eliminating the rest. This can start with an analytics review and result in a shorter list of more effective activities.

Third, Erika Andersen provides four questions to ask yourself to discover whether you’re doing the simplest thing that works (from the same Forbes post quoted above):

  • What are the most important outcomes we need to get?
  • What steps or information we could remove from existing processes or systems and still get those outcomes?
  • Is there another, simpler approach that would still get us those outcomes?
  • Am I considering anything as necessary that may be changeable?

Fourth, to dig much deeper into comprehensive (and I dare say, philosophical) thinking about simplicity, check out John Maeda’s book, The Laws of Simplicity. Mr. Maeda is the founder of the Simplicity Consortium at the MIT Media Lab. He suggests the ten guidelines listed below. But these one-liners don’t begin to illuminate the wonderful concepts put forth in the book. I highly recommend it – it’s short and thought provoking.

The Laws of Simplicity

  1. Reduce: use thoughtful reduction, eliminate but choose carefully.
  2. Organize: many things seem fewer, and clutter seems simpler, when organized.
  3. Time: time savings increases the perception of simplicity.
  4. Learn: when you understand something, it becomes simpler.
  5. Differences: simplicity needs complexity in order to be meaningful by contrast.
  6. Context: complexity is like being lost; simplicity implies the feeling of being found.
  7. Emotion: more of the right kind of emotion helps convey simplicity.
  8. Trust: trusting that simple things will ‘just work’ can present paradoxes.
  9. Failure: some things can never be made simple, but trying can bring a ‘return on failure.’
  10. The One: simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.

Finally, apply flag design principles. I’ll leave you with this TED Talk by Roman Mars about flag design for inspiration about the incredible power of simplicity. Believe me when I say that it is worth 18 minutes of your time. But if you don’t have 18 minutes, here are the five basic flag design principles from The North American Vexillological Association:

  1. It should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism.
  3. Use 2-3 basic colors.
  4. No lettering or seals. Never use writing of any kind.
  5. Be distinctive (or be related).

Mr. Mars believes that these are guidelines that can be applied much more universally than just to the design of flags. And I agree!

To achieve success thru simplicity, try applying one or more of the above five simplification methods to your next marketing communication challenge.


Check out part one and part two in this blog series on success thru simplicity.

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