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The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything

The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything

by Matthew E. May

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Winner of a 2013 Small Business Book Award for Economics

The world is more overwhelming than ever before. Our work is deeper and more demanding than ever. Our businesses are more complicated and difficult to manage than ever. Our economy is more uncertain than ever. Our resources are scarcer than ever. There is endless choice and feature overkill in all


Winner of a 2013 Small Business Book Award for Economics

The world is more overwhelming than ever before. Our work is deeper and more demanding than ever. Our businesses are more complicated and difficult to manage than ever. Our economy is more uncertain than ever. Our resources are scarcer than ever. There is endless choice and feature overkill in all but the best experiences. Everybody knows everything about us. The simple life is a thing of the past. Everywhere, there's too much of the wrong stuff and not enough of the right. The noise is deafening, the signal weak. Everything is too complicated and time-sucking.

Welcome to the age of excess everything. Success in this new age looks different and demands a new skill: Subtraction.

Subtraction is defined simply as the art of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly . . . or the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place. And if subtraction is the new skill to be acquired, we need a guide to developing it.

Enter The Laws of Subtraction.

Through a dozen of the most compelling stories of breakthrough innovation culled from 2,000 cases and bolstered by uniquely personal essays contributed by over 50 of the most creative minds in business today, The Laws of Subtraction outlines six simple rules for winning in the age of excess everything, and delivers a single yet powerful idea: When you remove just the right things in just the right way, something very good happens.

The Laws of Subtraction features contributions by over 50 highly regarded thinkers, creatives, and executives.

On Law #1: What Isn't There Can Often Trump What Is

"When you reduce the number of doors that someone can walk through, more people walk through the one that you want them to walk through." -- SCOTT BELSKY, founder and CEO of Behance and author of Making Ideas Happen

On Law #2: The Simplest Rules Create the Most Effective Experience

"Keeping it simple isn't easy. By exploiting subtraction in innovation, we've been able to create an environment of freedom and creativity that allows us to thrive." -- BRAD SMITH, CEO, Intuit

On Law #3: Limiting Information Engages the Imagination

"Subtraction can mean the difference between a highly persuasive presentation and a long, convoluted, and confusing one. Why say more when you can say less?" -- CARMINE GALLO, author of The Apple Experience

On Law #4: Creativity Thrives Under Intelligent Constraints

"Here's the key to the conundrum for managers who want to stoke the innovation fire: That close cousin of scarcity, constraint, can indeed foster creativity." -- TERESA AMABILE, author of The Progress Principle

On Law #5: Break Is the Important Part of Breakthrough

"If you kill the butterflies in your stomach, you'll kill the dream. Embrace the feeling. Save the butterflies." -- JONATHAN FIELDS, author of Uncertainty

On Law #6: Doing Something Isn't Always Better Than Doing Nothing

"When we're faced with the greatest odds against us, often we need to edit rather than add." -- CHIP CONLEY, cofounder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and author of Emotional Equations

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the laws of subtraction

Six Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything

By matthew e. may

The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2013Matthew E. May
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-179561-6





Music is the space between the notes. Claude Debussy


I love optical illusions. Here's why: The white circles that you see in the rather incomplete grid below don't really exist. Neither do the white diagonal lines you see connecting them. Yet what isn't really there is the most interesting part of the image.

The reason it's so interesting isn't just that you see the white circles and diagonals, it's that everyone does. And even if I tell you to focus only on the drawn lines and completely ignore the space between them, your brain will override the order. So will everyone else's.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert refers to this as a mistake. "The errors that optical illusions induce in our perceptions are lawful, regular, and systematic," he says in his book Stumbling on Happiness. "They are not dumb mistakes but smart mistakes—mistakes that allow those who understand them to glimpse the elegant design and inner workings of the visual system."

It appears that I created the effect simply by removing a section of line segment on alternating corners of a larger grid composed of smaller squares. That's not quite accurate; it was a bit more involved than that. I experimented with the spacing of gaps to figure out the minimum amount of solid line needed to facilitate the production of an altogether new experience that you—or, more precisely, your brain—actually created.

You have just experienced the first law of subtraction: What isn't there can often trump what is.

If you know what to do and how to do it, you can use this approach to achieve success in the real world. You can cut through the noise and confusion of a chaotic world so that even the most complex things make more sense. You can draw and direct attention to what matters most so that your products and services have more meaning for others. You can focus energy and make your strategy more effective. You can generate greater visual and verbal impact to make your message stick and stay.

FedEx used Law 1 to dramatically change its image and create one of the most indelible logos ever designed, one that helped breathe new life into an already strong brand and simultaneously signaled the world that the company was going places.

Here's what happened.


My 10-year-old daughter points out the logo on a FedEx truck every time she sees one. She's done that without fail ever since she learned to sound out letters. But she doesn't do that with any other logo. What's special about the FedEx logo isn't the vibrant colors or the bold lettering. It's the white arrow between the E and the x. "There's the white arrow that no one on my gymnastics team knows about," she'll say.

The FedEx logo is legendary among designers. It has won over 40 design awards and was ranked as one of the eight best logos in the last 35 years in the 35th Anniversary American Icon issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Nearly every design school professor and graphic designer with a blog has at some point focused on the FedEx logo to discuss the use of negative space. I wanted to hear the full history of how it all went down, not to mention impressing my daughter, so I called on Lindon Leader, the designer who created the mark in 1994 while working as senior design director in the San Francisco office of Landor Associates, a global brand consultancy known for executing strategy through design. Lindon now runs his own shop in Park City, Utah, where he continues to work the white space in creating marks and logos for a wide array of organizations.

We spoke at length about visual impact, his creative process, and his story of the FedEx logo development. I began by telling him how my daughter points out FedEx trucks when she sees them.

"It's those kinds of stories that are the most gratifying for me, most rewarding," he says. "I'm always asked what it's like to see your work everywhere, and does it ever get old. It never does."

When Lindon graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, his very first job was with Saul Bass, the iconic Los Angeles designer perhaps best known for creating the AT&T logo. Lindon remembers Bass telling a story much like mine toward the end of his career. Someone asked him in an interview whether after an illustrious 40-year career in design in which he won every award under the sun, he still got a thrill out of design. Bass answered the question by explaining how he'd been driving recently with his five-year-old daughter, who suddenly cried out, "Daddy, look, there goes one of your trucks!" Saul told the interviewer that seeing that truck on the road still made him proud.

I shared my interest in subtraction, specifically the use of negative space and emptiness, and asked Lindon to describe his design philosophy. "I strive for two things in design: simplicity and clarity," he explains. "Great design is born of those two things. I think that's what we all want from design, and from business, from our work, even from our friendships."

According to Lindon, seeing the original Smith & Hawken catalogs in the 1980s made a significant impression on him and influenced much of his early approach to design. "It was an experience like taking this leisurely stroll through a garden, everything so clean, refreshing, uncluttered. You got this sense of the simple, healthy outdoors life. Simple and clear. It was my first aha into what design needs to be."

Lindon begins a design project in a fairly typical way, generating a long string of designs. "Those early sketches always have too much going on, too much to think about, and too much extraneous stuff," he says. He labors over the work until the simplicity and clarity he's looking for begin to emerge. "I slowly begin to remove things. The more you pull out, the clearer it gets. Not everyone gets that; most people don't. But it's always the final one that's far more simple and far more clear than the more elaborate ones I labored over at the beginning." It is inevitable, he says, that when he creates something composed of 30 to 40 percent whitespace, his clients ask why they can't fill up the space and make use of it. Lindon's invariable reply: "Understatement is much more effective, much more elegant."

Elaborating on the theme of understatement and how to craft a memorable experience through something as apparently limiting as graphic identity design, Lindon explains to me that what he's after is what he calls "the punch line" and that he's delighted when something isn't what it appears to be at first glance: "You look at something, then you look at it again, and you say, 'Hey, wait!' and 'Oh, I get it!'" Lindon is after what he refers to as "one plus one equals three." For Lindon, that addition is actually subtractive. "You've eliminated the third one and had not just the same impact but greater impact because of the surprise of the missing one. If your name is Global Air Supply, for example, the last thing you want is an airplane flying around an image of the globe. That's one plus one equals two. The FedEx logo without the hidden arrow is just plain vanilla—one plus one equals two. With it, it's one plus one equals three."

"If you look at the original Northwest Orient Airlines logo that Landor Associates did," Lindon continues, "it's maybe the best logo I've ever seen. It's one plus one equals three, maybe four or five." The logo he is referring to is shown on the next page. It is a circle with a clearly visible N. But if you look again, you see i

Excerpted from the laws of subtraction by matthew e. may. Copyright © 2013 by Matthew E. May. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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Meet the Author

MATTHEW E. MAY is the author of three award-winning books: The Elegant Solution, In Pursuit of Elegance, and The Shibumi Strategy. A popular speaker, creativity coach, and close advisor on innovation to companies such as ADP, Edmunds, Intuit, and Toyota, he is a regular contributor to the American Express OPEN Forum Idea Hub and the founder of Edit Innovation, an ideas agency based in Los Angeles.

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