Book Of The Week: Keeping it simple comes across as stupid

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The Independent Online

By Edward de Bono.

(Penguin, pounds 7.99)

IT IS dressed in a white cover like the white sleeve of the famous Beatles' record. But unlike the Beatles' music, this book has an atmosphere of sensory deprivation.

It starts with a short cut: "The ten rules of simplicity start on page 279. You can turn to page 279 to read these rules as an indication of what this book is going to be about. Or you can wait until you reach them, and they will give a summary of what has been in the book." I zoomed straight to page 279.

Since the age of three I've disliked and disobeyed rules. Straightaway, Edward de Bono made me an adversarial reader. This book's not going to be fun. All the rules start with "you must" or "you need" to do whatever it is.

The rules aren't enough to grasp the book. Fortunately there's another device to make it go faster. All the left-hand pages are "sayings" in big type that take seconds to read. It's a good idea. It's simple.

The sayings look profound, but, unlike the teachings of Zen that say little and leave you with much, these sayings say little and leave you with little. There's about 200 of them. Some clever, some wise, some obscure. Here are two: "Why shouldn't language be living and changing all the time?" It is. Try reading James Elroy's LA Confidential or Black Dahlia.

Or try this: "Because simplicity seems easy we believe it is easy to achieve. When it is not easy to achieve we give up too quickly." Yes. Obviously. But aren't these all simple truisms?

Everyone knows operating manuals are impossible and most forms don't work. Edward de Bono says the cause is that the people who produce them hadn't decided to ensure they were easy to understand. "You have to be motivated to design simplicity." Yes, but I don't think an Institute of or "Simp", (de Bono's suggestion for simplifying the word simplify), is an antidote to unmotivated complexity. Companies that obsessively simplify their interactions and lead by example would be more effective.

Ebono, (a simplification of Edward de Bono's name), is right to point out the absurdities of some immigration procedures and to trace the history of why London taxicabs have high "ceilings". But there's an implicit conclusion in this book that everything should be simplified. There are many things wrong with London cabs, but spaciousness is not one of them. And I treasure the elaborate and beautiful stamps in my passport that recreate the magic and romance of places I've visited.

To be fair to Ebono, he's excluded art from his campaign. Otherwise the Mister Men books would be of more value than Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the time of Cholera or Shakespeare. I don't think anyone would disagree with him about the need for many things in our lives to be simpler.

But listen to this. This is page 7. "Imagine the numbers going up in a staircase from 1-100. The first step is one unit high, the second step is two units high ... the hundredth step is one hundred units high. So if we added up all the steps we would be adding up all the numbers from one to one hundred. Now imagine a similar staircase placed upside-down over the first one. There has to be an overlap of one at the end in order to fit a similar staircase. We now have a rectangle which is 100 units along one side and 101 units along the other side. To get the total area we just multiply 100x101. That would give us "twice" the total we need because we have added up "two" staircases so we divide by two. The answer is 5,050."

This page demonstrates the Achilles' heel of Ebono's book. It's his inability to grasp that mathematics makes me, and those like me, "lose it". Page 7 is as far from simple human normality as I can imagine. It evokes an old paradigm of teaching which inhibited learning and induced "school rage".

This is no way to bring people to value simplicity and act on it. Get real, Edward.

There's a "lecturey" tone to the book which I suspect works only if Ebono's your cup of tea. It doesn't work for me. I'm not "the reader". I don't want "tasks". There's hardly any wit or humour. There's an acknowledgement of the Art of Cartoonists. But the unyielding starkness of the book's typographic rules excluded the use of cartoons.

can be a joy. For instance, the yellow of a daffodil or the power of a smile. It can be exhilarating like lightening or a waterfall. It can be inspiring. Think of human achievements like an igloo, a canoe or a paperclip. Complexity, too, can be enriching like Charley Parker's music, the construction of a spider's web or a blackbird's song.

I suspect that current mathematical theories of order and disorder effectively make complexity and simplicity false distinctions. I think that what Ebono really wants us to do is evolve from our reliance on not thinking. In other words, drop bad habits.

Michael Wolff

The reviewer is a former President of the Chartered Society of Designers and the Design & Art Directors Association, and co-founded Wolff Olins in 1965. He is a founder and Head of Imagination of The Fourth Room, which helps companies see today what they can be tomorrow