In an Age of Gadgets, Life Gets Complicated Do you have a cell phone with a thousand functions that you don't know how to use? John Maeda, a designer and researcher at the MIT Media lab, believes in the value of simplicity. Callers discuss devices that they find to be elegantly simple or needlessly complex.
NPR logo

In an Age of Gadgets, Life Gets Complicated

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In an Age of Gadgets, Life Gets Complicated

In an Age of Gadgets, Life Gets Complicated

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

What makes a tool or a gadget a pleasure to use? You know, when you think you found yourself looking around your toolbox, you have electronic gadgets, you know, you say to yourself, this is such a pleasure to use, this device. It knows what I want to do, it knows - it lets me do it. It almost seems to know, you know, what I want to do before I do it, and lets me do that.

Or maybe on the other end, you have something just the opposite. You're saddled with a gadget with so many blinking lights and buttons and dials or menus - nested menus. I can't stand nested menus that they - they find an easy shortcut for you to do what you want to do.

Well, we're going to be talking about simplicity for the rest of the hour - simplicity in technology, simplicity in design. How to make technology work better for people? For example, how does the new iPhone rate? Is that the ultimate technology in a new kind of device? What do you think?

Our number 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

My guest is John Maeda. He is author of the book "The Laws of Simplicity." It's out from MIT Press. He's associate director of research in MIT's Media Lab, and the E. Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Media Arts & Sciences there. He joins us from the MIT campus. Welcome to the program.

Professor JOHN MAEDA (Author, "The Laws of Simplicity", Director of Research, MIT Media Lab): Hi there.

FLATOW: Hi there. "The Laws of Simplicity," and there are laws in the book you've written.

Prof. MAEDA: Well, there's 10 laws and you shouldn't break any of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Don't break the laws.

Prof. MAEDA: No…

FLATOW: What are those…

Prof. MAEDA: …It's okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: What - tell us why you wrote this and what are - we'll go through the laws in a minute, but why did you find…

Prof. MAEDA: Sure. Sure.

FLATOW: …that you need to write this? I'm sure you must have some gadgets you love and gadgets you hate.

Prof. MAEDA: Well, it all comes from the fact that I went to MIT as a classical computer science student then left and went to art school after that to destroy my brain, and came back to technology with a kind of a different attitude.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MAEDA: And as a professor at MIT, I realized that T stands for technology, so it's hard to escape it on campus.

So one day, I was on Cape Cod, where we hide from technology at MIT. And on the beach, and discovered that the letters M-I-T occurred in perfect sequence in the word simplicity, S-I-M-P-L-I-C-I-T-Y. But also the word complexity and I thought this was a kind of an omen, and I had to figure this out, simplicity versus complexity, and to begin to look at the laws that might underlie that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So let's through some of your favorite laws of simplicity. Which ones are broken the most?

Prof. MAEDA: Oh. Well, it turns out, out of 10 laws, there's a high probability that some will be broken. I think my most favorite one is the law of time, that saving in time feel like simplicity. It's that great feeling you have when you're in, like in a line in the airport and suddenly you have a brand new Homeland Security line opened for you.

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. MAEDA: You're like, all right, I've saved time. That would - I mean, it's so much simpler. So saving in time feels really good.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go through the first law. The first law is reduce.

Prof. MAEDA: Yes.

FLATOW: Why did you - why is that a law?

Prof. MAEDA: Well, it's the, I believe, core law really. It's the fact that the way to achieve simplicity is through reducing something to its essence, which is actually the hardest law to achieve. It's a matter of making something smaller, hiding complexity, but also embodying it with something good, something you'd want.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Give us a good example of that?

Prof. MAEDA: A good example would be like a, well, the iPod is the perfect example of a strange kind of simplicity, really. It's an MP3 player, we all know, and it's something you pick up and you think, wow, I really love this object. It turns out what we love is - we love how simple the object is. But we also love how complex it is because it has an entire iTunes infrastructure, make it easy to buy music.

So, we're getting less, but we're also getting more at the same time, so the magic of simplicity.

FLATOW: Now why do we have so many gadgets with so many buttons that we don't need, top-heavy menus on things, why are they all there?

Prof. MAEDA: Well, it's because business has figured out that you always want more. We love having more. When you compare two objects at a store, and if one has a 100 features and the other has 98 features and it costs the same, well, you'll feel gypped if you buy the 98-feature one, so you buy the 100-feature one.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So…

Prof. MAEDA: As simple as that.

FLATOW: But more can be less there?

Prof. MAEDA: More could be less in the sense that more can give you a lot of extreme dissatisfaction. But it could be less, and so it could give you a sort of sense of peace that you have all that functionality.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You have - law number two is organize. Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.

Prof. MAEDA: Right.

FLATOW: Give us an example of organization.

Prof. MAEDA: Best example is my silverware drawer at home. You know, I have lots of kids and it's never organized properly. But we have an organizer, that the spoons fit in one place, the forks fits in one place. And so if you didn't have that, you'd have a whole pile of different utensils. But by having organization, you open the drawer and you think, oh, this is much simpler.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Henry(ph) in San Anton. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

HENRY (Caller): Hello. This is Henry.

FLATOW: Hi there.

HENRY: Hi. I'm calling about a product. I'm so glad that you have this, you have this show, because I - this has been driving me nuts for a long time. I have this product in front of me, which is sort of a simple alarm, CD alarm clock, and which I thought was a great idea, it could play my CD when I wanted to wake up.

Well, this has 13 buttons across the front. It's got two buttons on the side down below that I can't reach from my bed because, after all, it's an alarm clock. On the other side, there are three more switches. And let me say something kind of specifically about the buttons on the left. One of them - and I think it's what you would call a slide switch that has three positions within a five-millimeter range. And I just measured it, five millimeters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HENRY: The other one has four positions called auto buzzer off and on, and they're within a six-millimeter range.


HENRY: Now how is someone is supposed to, you know, deal with this late at night, maybe when you're going to bed, you want to refocus or reset this. And -or just set it. Those are the sort of things that, you know, I'm just so glad I got the opportunity to say on the air I might just pitch it right out the window.

FLATOW: John, radios to me - because I've been a radio person my whole life -are the bane of our existences with all these buttons. And buttons too small, and he's right, you have to be a brain surgeon to have a fingertip fine enough to move those little buttons around.

Prof. MAEDA: Mm. Well, I thought about this a lot because I travel a lot. And at every hotel, I'm not sure how to wake up, because every alarm clock is different, right? And…

FLATOW: Absolutely. You take out your cell phone if you want - to wake you up.

Prof. MAEDA: You know, I've just given up and used the wake up call and hope the person understands English. That works really great. But, the one thing I realize now is why are there so many buttons is, let me give you an example. I have an alarm clock at home that has just one button, you know, it's the one button that gives - tells me if it's on or off.

And I got to tell you, I always forget which state is on, which state is off. Because all the functionality has made it very abstract to me with a single button. The advantage of that crazy alarm clock that your guest is describing of 15 buttons is they've made it easier to figure out which button does what, but they also make it confusing how to figure out how they all work in concert. That's the problem.

FLATOW: So what laws does that machine in your book file in?

Prof. MAEDA: That fits in the - the law six, of context. It's a fact that what you think is actually complex is actually simple, and what is simple is actually complex.

FLATOW: Mmm. Thanks for calling a good block of pitching that alarm clock.

HENRY: Okay, thanks very much.

FLATOW: Right.

HENRY: Adios.

FLATOW: Adios. 1-800-989-8255. Let's talk about the iPhone a little bit, because we mentioned in passing…

Prof. MAEDA: All right.

FLATOW: How does that - does it break any of your 10 laws? Does it enforce any of them?

Prof. MAEDA: I think it (unintelligible) many of the laws. I mean, first of all, it's desirable - that's the seventh law, emotion, because there's so much advertising pumped into it, like, you know, even my dog wants it, or my kid wants it or whatever. Everyone wants this thing, so that it's emotional. So even though it's actually not that easy use, you're pushing people over the barrier by saying, I want to use it, and that changes the whole game. It's kind like driving, you know, driving is hard to do, but because you want freedom, you sort of get there somehow?

But, you know, actually, I think the big invention there is a fact that you can use two fingers, instead of one finger, or you can have that simultaneous touch. It's the fact that you can easily zoom by sticking your thumb and index finger on the screen instead of moving your fingers apart and together?

And the reason why that enhances the whole object is it's changed the rules for how you're interacting. Because before that, you're just using one, you know, mouse button - click here, click there, drag here, drag there. And now you can just do it all with two fingers. And that's magic.

FLATOW: Yeah. I once talked to a designer of refrigerators. And I said - he was telling me about all the features that a refrigerator could have. And it came out, you know, the refrigerator could talk to you, it could tell you what food is missing and things, I said, how - who thought of these things? And he said to me, you know, it's because the chip, the electronic chip that was put in had a speaking feature, so they thought they had to use it. They just couldn't leave it lie there, you know, doing nothing.

Prof. MAEDA: Exactly. It's - I was shopping for chips one time for a little art project I did. And it's cheaper to buy a chip that tells a time, counts, has alarm functions, stop watch versus a chip that just counts, which doesn't make any sense. So you'll buy the cheaper chip and, like you're saying, it's like Pandora's Box; you put it in your product and you can't help resist accessing that feature.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You have a very interesting number nine law, which is called failure. Some things can never be made simple.

Prof. MAEDA: Well, I kind of want to be a lawyer someday, so that's my disclaimer law.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MAEDA: You know, it's just the reality that people are looking for the magic bullet for everything, you know?

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. MAEDA: And, you know, the thing about the laws of simplicity, it isn't actually pushing just simplicity, it's actually pushing complexity as well because if the world were simple, we'd get bored immediately. We'd want it to be complex. So, always keep that one in the back of the garage.

FLATOW: So should we always - should we assume that it can't be made simple so don't try to make it simple?

Prof. MAEDA: Well, I mean, if you look at the demographics today, you know, with the older people. You know, one of our sponsors they (unintelligible) AARP. And they tell us that in 2011, you know, the baby boomers are in retirement age in massive numbers. And what does that mean? It means that people will desire simplicity even more and more because older people desire simplicity because they realize there's not much time in life to mess around with all the gadgets. Whereas a younger person has all that time - and, you know, and all day, they can play with their iPhone and learn how to do, like, thousands of features. They have time to waste. So the older you are, I think, going to third law, you want to save time because time is so much more precious.

FLATOW: But a lot of these guys are just overloading us. You know? We may, you know, not be able to deal with. Maybe we're not made to be bombarded with all these choices, things like that.

Prof. MAEDA: And what's happening is, like, just like with this program, you know, companies are listening and they're also scratching their head and asking themselves why did we put 15 buttons on our alarm clock? So this is a natural feedback in our system, I think. They're listening.

FLATOW: I have the same problem with clock - with car radios…

Prof. MAEDA: Ugh.

FLATOW: …which would - you too, I can say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I have a very simple car radio with a, you know, the old style volume button on the left, station button on the right and six buttons in the middle for the stations.

Prof. MAEDA: Old school.

FLATOW: It's a new radio, though. I had to search it out to find it and to install it in my car. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones to Jeff(ph) in Boulder. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

JEFF: I thought I'd like to talk about the granddaddy of what I think is the ultimate simplicity in art and technology and that's the Macintosh computer, which is getting less talk these days because of the iPhone and iPod. But it's still just a great machine. And in particular, I think it's great how they took something that probably violates all the rules of simplicity - that is the Unix operating system - and they - and overlaid something that a six-year-old can use but is still extremely functional for somebody who uses Unix or has to do all those difficult nasty tasks. And I just thought I'd like to hear some ideas about that. And I can take my comments off the air.


JEFF: Thank you.

Prof. MAEDA: Yeah, well, I was one of the first Macintosh buyers. In 1984, I brought my Macintosh to MIT as a freshman. And so I'm a big Mac fan. Years later, though, I did realized, you know, your previous speaker mentioned how the Windows, you know, there's more viruses, in Macs there aren't as many viruses. Certain people choose certain computers, you know. Certain people are certain thinking types. You know, the whole MBTI type definitions? And I have a feeling that there are certain people who like seeing things in the abstract.

I mean, if you recall when the Macintosh came out, some people said, all right, a desktop. I get it. Paper. I get it. Whereas, there were those people who were like, you know, that doesn't look like you're doing business.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Prof. MAEDA: You know, where are the rows and columns, kind of things. So there are certain brains that acclimate to a more abstract interface. And if you think about kids growing up today, they probably are very different from the way we grew up. They're very abstract. They can live with like, you know, 1,000 instant message windows at the same time. They will probably grow, build around this visual culture we have today, this abstract culture.

FLATOW: This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow talking with John Maeda, author of "The Laws of Simplicity." I have to say, John, that I'm a Mac user from way back, a convert for the PC system.

Prof. MAEDA: All right.

FLATOW: But I do think it has gotten harder to use.

Prof. MAEDA: Don't you? Oh, my God.

FLATOW: I think the Mac has gotten harder to use over the years. I think the computer for the rest of us has - because it's gone to Unix operating system under it, has caused us to type in things and do, you know, make some kind of commands and fixing it up harder than it used to be. Now, it certainly crashes less than it used to. That's for sure.

Prof. MAEDA: That's right.

FLATOW: But I still think that the operating system has features in the old -the old operating system that were better. I mean, just for simple people to use. You know, as a simple device.

Prof. MAEDA: It was easy to select files and color them, for instance.


Prof. MAEDA: That was built in there. Now, you have to look for that - your favorite sub-menu of menus.

FLATOW: Yeah. I mean, you know, I'm still a Mac lover but I still think there are certain points that they sacrificed in going to the newer system. We'll see what the new system looks like. And this one's probably gorgeous.

1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Norman(ph). Is it Niceville, Florida?

NORMAN: (Caller): That's right.

FLATOW: What a Niceville place to live.

NORMAN: Oh, it's really nice out here. You know, I'm just out here working. But listen, I (unintelligible). I have bought the new iPhone. And I've had three of the Microsoft phones before. And I can tell you that in comparison to this Mac phone those three phones were what I describe as user-hostile. I mean, it's like - they just kept crashing, kept breaking down. Well, this Mac phone, you can get in, get out, you know, I'm very satisfied with it. I even had - I traded in for a Treo when I thought that the Treo was - it was all right.

But this Mac phone, plus the serviceability that, you know, they keep it simple. And as you do with any Macintosh, which I've had like four of them, you know, you download a program and you don't have to execute anybody with these programs. You just - bam, bam, and that's it. You know? So I'm very happy with. It's - and I think that waiting for - I wish that Macintosh would go into the camera business. And I think they would give Nikon and Canon on their high-end level a run for their money. And I've said I'm very pleased with that, and with the instruction and everything.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling.

NORMAN: You bet. Bye, bye.

FLATOW: You know, it seems that they used to sell gadgets by how quick and fast and whatever they work. And now, they sell them by how beautiful and easy they are to use.

Prof. MAEDA: Oh, it's all about how skin deep is that beauty. I mean, we bring up Apple a lot and I was asked by BusinessWeek, you know, what is the secret? Is it a secret that the great designers involved with that? I mean they're great designers, of course, but it's the CEO, Steve Jobs, that has the vision to carry out a well-designed object, not just from the outside, but from the inside as well, make it happen in a company. And you'll see more and more CEOs become more like that, ones that can orchestrate the entire actualization of a well-designed object.

FLATOW: We'll talk more about that. We're talking about the new book, "The Laws of Simplicity," with John Maeda from MIT. And we'll stay on the topic after the break, so stay with us. More of your phone calls. What do you love? What do you hate about technology? What simple devices do you like? What could be made better? Maybe you've got an idea for something that we haven't thought about. 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, talking this hour with John Maeda, who is author of "The Laws of Simplicity." He is a graphic designer, visual artist, computer scientist and founder of the Simplicity Consortium at the MIT Media Lab.

But, I noticed, you know, in your book, you bring a lot of the right side of your brain into the left side. You talk a lot about emotion and love and things like that in designing and in talking about simplicity. And, for example, that you have one section in your book - one of the keys that's necessary is called openness. Openness simplifies complexity. And you talk about it's hard for companies to say I love you, but they can if they try to open up to you. How should they open up to us?

Prof. MAEDA: Oh, I think that we're so mediated today. You know, over - not just medicated but over-mediated today. And in sense, companies have a difficulty reaching out to their customers in the way that is sincere or even perceived as sincere, which is not easy at all.

FLATOW: And so, what should be one of the keys here?

Prof. MAEDA: Well, I think the keys are being sincere. Sort of hard to do, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MAEDA: But - no, sincerity - it's just something that, you know, having, you know, been involved in technology for a while…

FLATOW: Honesty.

Prof. MAEDA: …and involved in the arts and stuff, and, you know, having, you know, been blessed with some great children, you just think about life a bit differently and you think, well, how does it translate to business? And you see, in business, all aspects of business, it's great warm people who have a hard time, sort of like extending that warmth or honesty or sincerity out to the products to the actual customers. And so it's all waiting there, but how do you change that. I've seen books now about how now we're moving more towards a sort of kumbaya-style of company, which I'm actually quite - feeling quite positive about.

FLATOW: Of course, if you're honest, it's a lot cheaper.

Prof. MAEDA: It's much simpler.

FLATOW: It's simpler. Right. You don't have to hire a lot of people to lie for you and remember all - and keep records of all those lies so you know what you were saying.

Prof. MAEDA: Well, that's the eighth law of simplicity. It's in simplicity we trust. As simple as that.

FLATOW: Trust. You talked about swimming. That was an interesting analogy you've made about. When you're trying to learn to swim in the MIT pool, you learned about trust.

Prof. MAEDA: Yeah. I was able to escape the MIT requirement, somehow, as an undergraduate. Didn't swim that well. But when I grew up and came back to MIT, I took swimming with the freshmen and I had great swimming teacher at MIT. And, you know, the way I learned how to swim is he just said just float. Just trust the water. And that changed everything. I can swim now. I feel great.

FLATOW: Let's go to Ron(ph) on - in Long Island. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Ron.

RON (Caller): Hi. How you doing? You know, telling(ph) along with what you're saying about loving the products, I'm an electrical engineer. I've been doing this for like 25 years, designing products. And I always find that if a product - if you don't use a product, all right? If you don't use the product you're designing, you're probably going to make it overly complex, because you got all these features that people want you to add and you kind of just throw them in. You know, you're throwing them the easiest way to design it but not necessarily the easiest way to use it. And I think that Macs get good press because the guys that are designing it and the people that are designing it probably love what they're building. And they use it and they know how it should work and they know how it shouldn't work. So just a comment.

FLATOW: Good comment.

RON: I think, yeah, it ties in with what you guys are just talking about.

FLATOW: John? Do you agree?

Prof. MAEDA: I think that - well, I think that what the guest is pointing out is that the more familiar you are with something, the easier is it to use. And I think that when you're making something, you know, I see it everyday at MIT. You have great technologists making stuff and adding more features because you can. But his point is important. Let them use it. Let them understand it. But at the end of the day, no matter how complex something is, if you know how to use it, it's going to be easy to use - sort of a paradox really.

I like to point out that most people complain about their cell phones - that they're too hard to use. But imagine like going in to like a Verizon store and saying you want that phone and the person says great. Well, now you'll have to step into that room and take the two-hour test to use your whatever phone. And if you pass it, I'll let you buy the phone. I can guarantee, everyone will be able to use their phones, but will they pass the test?

FLATOW: But aren't we all then beta users? I mean, aren't we all testers and guinea pigs for all these technology that hasn't actually figured out to the final degree yet?

Prof. MAEDA: That's such an important point. I mean, I think that I was looking at an MP3 player in a magazine being advertised as: And on top of this great functionality, it has a ROM you can easily update later on so we can fix it for you later.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MAEDA: So they build in this, sort of, like what you're saying, this beta testing system. You're so right.

FLATOW: And what other age would we have stood for this? When television came out and when radio came out, did we think of ourselves as the guinea pigs for the developers? We expected a TV that worked. You turn it on and there were two buttons, right? The channel change and the volume. And you had a little vertical and horizontal control, right? We expect it - here, we're just satisfied by saying, okay, I'll get the next version, the dot - the 2.0 version of it.

Prof. MAEDA: Well, if you think about it, technology wasn't advancing that quickly before.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

PROF. MAEDA: Now, it seems like everyday I go into MIT and students show me something brand new, which is quite exhilarating. And at the same time, it's quite frustrating. Because - going back to your chip point, I mean anything with a chip in it is going to be complex. It just defies gravity. You know, it used to be something is small it was simple; if something was large it was complex. Now, you put a chip in a spoon, and it can be anything. It could be a magic wand or a stock ticker or whatever, because it has a chip in it.

FLATOW: And who makes…

PROF. MAEDA: It defies reality.

FLATOW: …and who makes that decision to put the chip in a spoon?

PROF. MAEDA: I think technologists do in the end. I mean, they see an opportunity and they want to exploit it. And they think they might find it cool and go after it. That's why were entering an age where technologists are asking more questions.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

PROF. MAEDA: Is this actually relevant? Is this important? Can I use it? And that's the new breed of students coming out of places like MIT, I think.

FLATOW: Is that right? They actually are questioning whether we need this sort of stuff?

PROF. MAEDA: Yes. Oh, totally.

FLATOW: Yeah. In the opening dust jacket of your book you say, finally, we are learning that simplicity equals sanity.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

FLATOW: That was my D-Wade cell phone, a little more saying. Is that what you mean there, the new generation of scientists?

PROF. MAEDA: Yes. Because they are - going back to your guest's point. They are all users. They are avid users of the technology. They complain, and they will fix these problems. It's a very different time.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

PROF. MAEDA: And also, they're very sensitive to - going back to the whole thing of they're very sensitive to visual media. They're very sophisticated. If you think about it, all the motion graphics we see on TV today, it is amazing how people perceived the visual domain. And these kids today have this built into their brain.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255.

It seems that the theory of simplicity, while we are talking about technology here and the little gadgets, and we did touch it on a bit, about it a bit. It really does - it could apply to anything?

PROF. MAEDA: Oh, completely.

FLATOW: It could apply to your personal life, your business, your social life, things like that.

PROF. MAEDA: I get e-mail from people who are like, the Florida asphalt layer society, or like vintners' society, or whatever. People are really - response to the laws because they're quite flexible.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Back to the phones. Let's go to Andy(ph) in, is it La Jara, Colorado?

ANDY (Caller): It is La Jara.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Go ahead.

ANDY: I just wanted to mention something. It's simple. It's just silly. And that is the first chainsaw I ever owned was green. You took it up in the woods, and then you lost it. I spent a lot of time looking for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, that's how they sold more chainsaws, I guess.

ANDY: I guess it looked good in the store. That was - something like that.

FLATOW: All right. That's a great story. Thanks for calling, Andy.

ANDY: Yeah.

FLATOW: So, you know, that makes me question or - you mentioned the chips were put in by technologists, I'm believing, sometimes, that the chips are put in by the marketing people.

PROF. MAEDA: Well, both really. I mean, you can imagine like technologists picketing the marketing people. That might happen in the future. We're hoping for that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And where are these - where are the new designers coming from?

PROF. MAEDA: The new designers are coming from both sides, from both art schools and technology schools. We see the emergence of hybrid people. People who wheel technology and art with the same level of mastery.


PROF. MAEDA: Which I think is quite exciting.

FLATOW: Yeah. And, you know, because I think - I remember when I was in 10th grade studying geometry…


FLATOW: And my math teacher did a proof on the board, and he stood back and he said, this is elegant. I never heard the word elegant applied to math or a proof before. And when you looked at it, the proof really was elegant.

And it seems that could be the same of, you know, you say of design. When you look at it, to me, when you see great design, it looks elegant and it just stands out by itself.

PROF. MAEDA: Well, it's the ability to appreciate what is abstract.


PROF. MAEDA: It's a natural thing. It's like, wow, that's just - that concept makes so much sense. That design works so well. It's an abstract instinct, which can be augmented by a lot of marketing actually.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Who are some of the great designers today?

PROF. MAEDA: Oh, many of them are dead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PROF. MAEDA: Well, actually, they were very good when they were dead. One of my favorite designers was Paul Rand.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

PROF. MAEDA: He was the designer who designed the IBM logo and the ABC logo, and UPS logo. He was the quintessential American graphic designer. He was unique because he had a sense of play. And that's very important. You can design something to be brawn, sort of, perfectly engineered to withstand like, you know, in a bullet that's 7,000 miles per hour or whatever. But you can also design with play. And Paul Rand's hallmark was play. It's why we love Italian brands usually.

FLATOW: Right.

PROF. MAEDA: Because they're not funny per se, but they're humorous. They're human in a way.

FLATOW: I think some of the things we like - we've been talking a lot about Apple, Macintoshes, and iPhones. I think some of the things that make these attractive - and you might argue that the iPhone is not cheap - is that they are actually bringing great design down to consumer prices. And I am…

PROF. MAEDA: Completely.

FLATOW: I'm talking of, you know, we're making reference to what you've talked about that Bang & Olufsen products are just gorgeous and well designed, but they cost an arm and a leg to own.

PROF. MAEDA: They're kind of hard to buy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And I think that some of the beauty of these other products that we're seeing is that you can actually, if we were to buy some of these things as opposed to…

PROF. MAEDA: Sure. I mean most of those great design things are made unobtanium or whatever. But now, you know, companies are - like even Target are bringing design to the masses, which is exciting.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

PROF. MAEDA: However…


PROF. MAEDA: …anything with a chip in it, though, the scale has changed. I mean Apple succeeds because it has such software expertise. As more companies have more software expertise, we'll see things being just as good as Apple's things, I believe.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. On the other scale, you do, in an inexpensive design, you have Graves, who makes all those Target tools…


FLATOW: Are you familiar with it? I'm sure you're familiar with it.

PROF. MAEDA: Oh, definitely.

FLATOW: Gorgeously designed. Are there people who say I'm going to design for the masses and not be, you know, snobbish about how much it's going to cost?

PROF. MAEDA: Yeah. Like any population and people, we have all types. I think in the design world, you have those who will refuse to design for like the snobs, per se, design for the masses, and those who always choose to design for the snobs. It's pretty well spread out.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Is it Nick(ph) in Beaufort, South Carolina?

NICK (Caller): Yes.

FLATOW: Hi there.

NICK: This is Nick speaking. I was a chief (unintelligible) test pilot for a helicopter company designing cockpits, and we crossed through a lot of the rules that John is publicizing now. So I really appreciate the point of view. And I have to say that one of the things that we discovered is simplicity of a device is often complexity under the skin. You know, the idea that, for example, we design a gas gauge, right now, a gas gauge tells how much fuel is in the car, but it doesn't say how far you can go. It leaves to us the calculations for everything else, and the complexity is put on the human users, so we run out of gas.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

NICK: A fuel gauge that actually tells you how far you can go were superimposed on a map that says what the car can do for you is an example of putting complexity behind the device and supposedly in the users hands.

FLATOW: Good point, Nick. Thanks for calling.

NICK: Thank you.

FLATOW: Would you agree - let me just remind everybody that this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow talking with John Maeda, author of the "The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business and Life" right there on the cover as we were talking about it.

I guess that would be the ultimate definition of simplicity. Would it not be that there could be a lot of complexity underneath it, but you shouldn't see it?

Prof. MAEDA: That's a - the guest's point is extremely elegant. I mean, it's this idea that simplicity is about filling in the next blank without you thinking about it. That's what it is about. It's very hard to achieve.

Also, I mean, it does depend upon your context. Depending upon how you're feeling, you might want to know how far you could go. But maybe on that one day, you had to know down to the milligram how much gas is in the tanks. So it's all the context of use.

FLATOW: Let's see if how many calls we can get in the few minutes left. We have Jonathan(ph) in Ringoes, New Jersey.

JONATHAN (Caller): Yes. Hi, gentlemen. Just a very simple tool, it's actually a nail set. And what the designer had done was instead of having a separate pump, if you will, and a hammer in a hand, you're actually able to spring load it where you can pull back and it just drives the nail head below the wood surface. And I know that it's simple and very useful, because when I can't find it, I'm really aggravated. So that's just my two cents.

Prof. MAEDA: I have that, actually.

FLATOW: You do?


Prof. MAEDA: And it's beautiful.

JONATHAN: And what's very interesting is that it's fairly specialized in its own right. They're not carried everywhere, but when you've used it you know that you've got something good in your hands that's very well designed and very productive.

FLATOW: I think that's a definition of well designed, is you know something that you have good when you have it in your hand.

Prof. MAEDA: Yeah.

FLATOW: It feels right, right?

JONATHAN: That's it. Not technical, but you know, it's a good tool.

FLATOW: Where did you - how did you find it, Jonathan?

JONATHAN: Well, actually, I happen to see it - see somebody else using it. And I'm not in any specific trade, but just a general homeowner. And I thought, boy, that's really clever. And I just, you know, the power of the Web was able to find it online. And I'm glad that I do have it. So, you know, old school, you know, hammer with nail set, you know, this definitely replaces it. And it really does what it's supposed to do extremely well.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. And good luck with it.


FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Tell us how a brainstorming works at MIT in your lab? Do you have people - do you and your students sit around and think a good design or bad design or just something pop into your head.

Prof. MAEDA: Yeah. We do all the critiques and, sort of, we hit each other with bad ideas and good ideas like any other place. I think that the power of MIT is everyone is so freaking smart there that it's kind of like one of those "Fight Club" type of scenes, but it's quite exhilarating.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, it's good to have smart people sitting around thinking about things. But, you know, they're not sitting - are they eating Twinkies like they used to do in the old days?

Prof. MAEDA: Ah, Ding Dongs. That's what they're eating. Upgrade. Chocolate powered.

FLATOW: You got to bring some chocolate into it.

Prof. MAEDA: There you go.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you for talking time to be with us. It's really enjoyable.

Prof. MAEDA: Thank you.

FLATOW: Your book "The Laws of Simplicity," 10 laws in there, a few corollaries inside. John Maeda, who has written "The Laws of Simplicity." At MIT, he is a graphic designer, and visual artist and computer scientist, and founder of The SIMPLICITY Consortium at the MIT Media Lab. I highly recommend this book. It will probably give us something to straighten - simplify your life.

Good luck to you. Thanks for joining us.

Prof. MAEDA: Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.