Book Reviews

1758. The Laws of Simplicity.  (2006). John Maeda. MIT Press. 117 pp., $23.95, (Hardback), ISBN 978-0-262-13472-9.

Laura R. Pittman

Assistant Director of Academic Advising, University College

Ball State University, Indiana


The idea of simplifying life has gained attention over the years and is certainly a common topic in the home, workplace, and the world at large.   Whether we are encountering new technologies, brainstorming more effective means for accomplishing tasks, or creating targeted programming and events, even in the world of academic advising we are often on the hunt for making our “product” both higher quality and less complicated (for the student and the advisor). 

John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity is a relatively short book that outlines a detailed step-by-step process to a simpler life.  Maeda describes himself as an artist but as an MIT faculty member and computer scientist has a clear technological expertise and bent in this writing.  He prefaces the book with an anecdote about his daughters originally accessing their first email accounts and the eventual hold that the technology gains on the user.  “It began as a tiny drop--emails sent among themselves.  It grew to a slow drip as their friends joined the flow of communication.  Today it is a waterfall of messages, e-cards, and hyperlinks that showers upon them daily” (p. i).  There begins the authors highly relatable argument for ten laws (and three keys) to simplicity.

While theoretically this book is targeted to readers from all backgrounds and walks of life, it does have a very corporate and technological “feel” to it.  Academic advisors and administrators could certainly glean some valuable principles when developing (or devolving) programs and policies but it does take some digging.  For example, Maeda opens his first chapter discussing the idea of thoughtful reduction or, essentially taking an existing product or service and making it less complex without losing necessary function.  He explains that “you want a product or service to be easy to use; on the other hand you want it to do everything that a person might want it do” (p. 1).  In the advisor’s world this could potentially apply to degree audit products, student appointment processes, required programs, and academic planning resources.  Are our advising services easy to use?  Are they meeting the needs of the students?

Maeda’s simplicity focus can, perhaps, most obviously apply to the customer service nature of advising.  His third law addresses time and the increased expectations for quick processes.  He notes that the speed of the internet has reset the idea of what an adequate wait is given that we now have a “free front row seat to world events as they happen”.  Advisors, in particular, can likely relate to students (and parents) that expect responses to be immediate whether an email is made at 2:00 in the afternoon or 3:00 in the morning.  However, the author does note the delicate balance between quick service and quality service noting that “when speeding-up a process is not an option, giving extra care to a customer makes the experience of waiting more tolerable” (p. 31). Whether we are having students wait for appointments, wait for schedules, wait for transcripts, or any other number of advising “tasks”, there are a number of ways that advisors daily balance quick service with quality service.

While The Laws of Simplicity does have some helpful approaches to simplifying the workplace, one of the biggest drawbacks to a book that focuses much on technology is that technology is constantly on the move.  References to DVDs, I-pod Nanos, and even email can, at times, make the book (published in 2006) feel dated.  Perhaps the laws guiding the reader toward simpler lives still apply, but the anecdotes (and in some cases the illustrations) do not.  Academic Advising offices may find the book helpful when evaluating programs or leading discussions/training related to customer service, but I would not classify it as a book that is needed or essential for all advisors.

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