The Laws of Subtraction | Matthew E. May

Summary of: The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything
By: Matthew E. May


In ‘The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything,’ Matthew E. May encourages readers to embrace a minimalistic approach and tackle life’s complexities by eliminating excessive factors. The book introduces six laws of subtraction, which detail how simplifying various aspects of one’s life can lead to success and clarity. Examples from architecture, business, and personal life provide real-world illustrations of how removing unnecessary elements can lead to improvements. By studying these six laws, May aims to equip the readers with a mindset that values simplicity and thoughtfulness over excess.

Embracing Minimalism

In today’s fast-paced and overwhelming world, simplifying our lives can bring meaning and purpose. The book suggests embracing minimalism by removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly, following the six laws of subtraction. These laws include removing anything that doesn’t add value, creating space, and focusing on what’s essential. By decluttering our lives, we can reduce stress and increase happiness, leading to a more fulfilling life.

The Story Behind the FedEx Logo and Scion xB

The FedEx logo embodies the first law of subtraction, featuring an arrow in its design that represents the company’s fast and efficient delivery. Lindon Leader, the logo’s designer, drew inspiration from other simple designs like the old Northwest Airlines logo. Similarly, the Scion xB was designed based on the Japanese philosophy of genchi genbutsu, meaning “go look, go see,” which Toyota’s designers used to learn about Millennial behavior and preferences. Generation Y buyers wanted customization options at an affordable price tag, leading to the Scion xB offering over 40 different options for personalization. By observing their target audience’s behavior, Toyota’s designers successfully drew in Generation Y buyers.

Exhibition Road: A Model for Safe and Accessible Urban Design

When London hosted the 2012 Olympics, planners wanted to create Exhibition Road, a low-speed common space where pedestrians could safely interact with hundreds of cars each day. Ben Hamilton-Baille, an urban designer, drew inspiration from a previous project where he turned a three-lane highway into a shared space. He stripped out all traffic markings and replaced them with narrow streets and “courtesy crossings.” After a little more than a year, traffic fatalities and accidents dropped to zero, and vehicular speeds declined to about 20 miles per hour.

Exhibition Road is a prime example of a creative model, resulting in safe and accessible urban design, as determined by the second law. It focuses on giving priority to pedestrians rather than vehicles. Other examples of the second law include subtracting unnecessary details when it comes to policies, meetings, offices, and leadership qualifications with an “unpolicy” rather than a specific vacation policy.

Hamilton-Baille works on the principle that telling people what to do is not nearly as effective as inspiring them. He first examines the cultural and historical roots of a place by seeking out old maps, plans, documents, soil samples, and the like. He asks for the viewpoint of users, including children, who are more attuned to their daily routines. He observes pedestrian traffic at different times and notices how people interact with their surroundings.

The Exhibition Road design called for the use of shared space, so urban designers Hamilton-Baille Associates and Dixon Jones Architects worked with Kensington and Chelsea to create “the most accessible cultural destination in the world.” At the heart of every difficult decision lie three tough choices: What to pursue versus what to ignore. What to leave in versus what to leave out. What to do versus what not to do.” By creating a low-speed common space where pedestrians could safely interact with vehicles, Exhibition Road remains a prime example of the second law and of safe and accessible urban design.

The Power of Hand-Drawn Art

The enduring appeal of hand-drawn art lies in its unique ability to pique human curiosity and interest. The Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) iconic “hedcuts” are a prime example, created by artists who recreate photographs into detailed portraits using only pen and paper. The beauty of these illustrations is their focus on detail and uniqueness, inviting viewers to take a closer look. Comic books and graphic novels also engage the imagination through limited panels and the blank spaces in between, allowing readers to invent their own interpretation of the action. In a world saturated by easily produced digital content, the value of hand-crafted art lies in its ability to break patterns and capture attention in ways that no computer can replicate.

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