Reductive Reasoning and Focus

by on June 26, 2013
in book, design

An Excerpt taken from, The Value of The Finite

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” — Albert Einstein

Less is more. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe coined the term as a core precept for minimalist design. Great, so how do you actually do this? The solution is to focus on what matters, and remove everything getting in the way.


  1. All systems have a hierarchy or natural order.
  2. By pruning a system back to it’s core essential elements you expose it.
  3. This exposure enables the natural understanding of a system, as each element naturally leads or directs to the next.
  4. In this way the architecture is self directing. It is it’s own guide.
  5. This natural order within a system or architecture is what we refer to as intuitive. We know it when we see it.

To put it more simply most systems and/or architectures are full of filler. This filler abstracts the system and if applied thoughtlessly can make a system seem foreign, alien, less approachable, or even intimidating.

For example we hide electrical and plumbing systems behind false walls in most homes. But it we strip back the structure to it core elements it becomes self explanatory. We can follow each and every cable from the junction box out to each satellite outlet and socket. We can trace the plumbing stack out to each receptacle, the hot water, the cold water from the source to the destination. The system itself is self-evident. It explains itself with very minimal understanding of electrical engineering or plumbing and physics. Even the sub structure/framing it self evident. It’s clear where something is load bearing, where subdivisions occur, and why they exist.

Everyone intuitively understands how a ferris wheel works because it’s mechanics are exposed. No one understands how a car works because the whole system is hidden from the driver. It seem mysterious and unapproachable. But in ten minutes I could teach just about anyone how to change their oil. Give me thirty and we could draft out each primary component of an internal combustion engine, and discuss how each sub-system serves an individual function of the whole.

The core of understanding of reductivism within a system is to understand these ideas. The notion is to thoughtfully expose the core structural elements to the user that are requisite to understand how it functions. Strip away unnecessary filler. Apply filler judiciously and with intent. It is most useful when applied to help direct or lubricate the understanding or ease of use, typically when transitioning from one sub-system to another.

So many systems are filled with unnecessary distractions, decorations, and each of them simply add noise to the overall gestalt of the system. You can end up having to add new distractions to circumnavigate the existing distractions. Far better to remove the initial issue, and re-evaluate. Let the purity of the engineering sing. Let it be it’s own muse.

Sadly, distractions are all too often internal or intrinsic to the project or organizational culture you are working within. Too many conflicting opinions about a design can easily shake your confidence, and quickly have you wondering if you’ve headed down the right path or not. Some organizations thrive on embellishing systems with unnecessary distractions, believing they are “adding value.” This value add statement always scares me, simply because the initial system was likely perfect the way it was initially intended. Once new features or functionality are attached, not only does the underlying infrastructure become obfuscated by the “feature-of-the-day” the bolted on apparatus feel out-of-place. With mature software I have seen this “bolt-on” approach time and time again, until the whole system is simply a series of appended apparatus. The system itself no longer has any intention, elegance, or structure to communicate with a user about how to move through it. It is too full of features to be understood. This is also commonly referred to as “bloat-ware.” This happens also in architectures when spaces are remodeled time and time again. Each time being repurposed for different uses, goals, needs. The whole core of the space is engulfed, and it no longer breathes.

So if you’ve inherited a project like this, or are working within a culture full of “value add” thinking, think again about the assumptions biasing your approach. Look earnestly and directly at the system underneath all the crap. What is it telling you. Find it’s critical communication points and uncover them. Make it sing again.

This can be done tactically by simply creating multiple concepts. One with the crap. One with it stripped away.

The streamlined singing system will sell itself. It will be self-evident. The thing you have working in your favor is that most human beings are fairly predictable, and generally speaking we all appreciate something more if we can see it for what it is, approach it, understand it. I have yet to put two examples like this in front of key-stakeholders or decision makers, and have someone choose the crap. It’s almost anti-human once you see the two approaches juxtaposed.

We call this “intuitive.” When you ask someone to explain why they find something intuitive they almost can never put it into words. It’s like some sort of magic. The truth is the system is simply self-evident, likely because it isn’t full of a bunch of distractions, obfuscating it’s purpose and meaning.

You have to use your eraser as much as your pencil. Keep at it until you’ve reduced the system back to exactly what is required, and shamelessly throw away what isn’t needed. This is the essence of achieving simplicity.

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