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Quotations on simplicity

We must be careful. Quotations, taken away from their context, can (and will) be misused. Humans are quite prone to such dogmatism. But some of these simplicity quotations resonate so strongly that I couldn’t resist the urge to collect some of my favorite ones here. Most of them are taken straight from the Internet, a few from books or articles that I’ve actually read.

It’s tempting to simplify things. It’s easy to consider the process of simplifying as a “silver bullet”. It can indeed be beneficial in many real-world cases—for instance, in getting things done. Even though things sometimes really are simple, more often they are not. While recovering simplicity by eliminating the unnecessary is a great thing, forcing simplicity by ignoring background information doesn’t make that information go away. It’s just a practical trick, and perfectly OK as long as it is regarded as such. But confusing a simplification or a generalization with truth may turn that seemingly beautiful crystallization into pure misinformation.

Reliably separating the relevant and the irrelevant—eliminating all the unnecessary while keeping all the necessary—is very, very hard and error-prone.

That said, enjoy, with a bit of salt!

Pro simplicity

  • “Increasingly, people seem to misinterpret complexity as sophistication, which is baffling—the incomprehensible should cause suspicion rather than admiration. Possibly this trend results from a mistaken belief that using a somewhat mysterious device confers an aura of power on the user.” — Niklaus Wirth

  • “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” — Lin Yutang

  • “It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” — Bruce Lee

  • “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

  • “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” — Blaise Pascal

  • “I have always wished for my computer to be as easy to use as my telephone; my wish has come true because I can no longer figure out how to use my telephone.” — Bjarne Stroustrup

  • “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

  • “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” — Pablo Picasso

  • “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci

  • “The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply.” — Kahlil Gibran

  • “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” — Frederic Chopin

  • “There are two ways of constructing a software design. One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies. And the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies.” — C. A. R. Hoare

  • “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hofmann

  • “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” — Henry Ford

  • “The difference between a good and a poor architect is that the poor architect succumbs to every temptation and the good one resists it.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

  • “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” — William Strunk

  • “Beauty is more important in computing than anywhere else in technology because software is so complicated. Beauty is the ultimate defense against complexity.” — David Gelernter

  • “But I’m not interested in substance, it’s the essence of the music that counts!” — Composer John Tavener, when accused of his music having no substance.

  • “There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth.” — Leo Tolstoy

But don’t get blind…

  • “Seek simplicity and distrust it.” — Alfred North Whitehead

  • “For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean, and wrong.” — Henry Louis Mencken

  • “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they’re not.” — Yogi Berra

  • “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” — Philip K. Dick

  • “People who think they know everything really annoy those of us who know we don’t.” — Bjarne Stroustrup

  • “The trouble with simple living is that, though it can be joyful, rich, and creative, it isn’t simple.” — Doris Janzen Longacre

  • “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” — Albert Einstein

Last modified: 2010-01-17 10:15 +0200

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