The KISS Principle

“Any fool can make things complicated, it requires a genius to make things simple.” – E.F. Schumacher

Keep it Simple, Stupid

KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid and is a principle often used in design. The KISS principle is that most products, services and systems work best if they are kept as simple as possible rather than made unnecessarily complicated. In other words, simplicity should be a key goal in design, and unnecessary complexity should always be avoided.

The KISS phrase has been associated with aircraft engineer Kelly Johnson, lead engineer at the Lockheed Corporation, although Johnson may not have been the first to use the acronym or the term.

The KISS principle is explained by the story of Johnson providing a team of his design engineers with a handful of common tools. The challenge Johnson set was that the jet aircraft they design must be repairable by a capable mechanic in the field under combat conditions with only these tools. The relationship between the way things might break and the sophistication available to repair them but be designed into whatever it is.

Simple design supports self-sufficiency

Studies have shown that people who choose simpler lives prefer designs that they can fix themselves. This means the designs need to be understandable to a lay person – and the simpler something is the more understandable it is.

In the past people could use tools to fix or repurpose many of their effects from clothes and shoes to furniture, cars and their house.

However once items started to be made in automated, industrial assembly lines, and not by hand, they were not as simple to fix. Fifty years ago it was possible, for anyone who had the inclination, to fix their own car engine. I wouldn’t have called any of these people stupid, but they certainly didn’t have the specialised knowledge of a car designer. To fix a car these days you need specialised tools and knowledge because of the complexity of the design and systems, and the fact that they are all controlled by computers. The same is now true of many modern electronic appliances and technologies.

There are other factors with the design of products that mean they are harder to fix including the use of glue instead of screws or stitching, for instance. For many products, people often find that it is easier and cheaper just to buy a new one if the old one breaks down.

Likewise, new houses are a very complex system comprising a myriad of other complex systems such as wiring, plumbing, central heating, ventilation, air conditioning, water heating, sewerage, flooring, windows and doors. Obviously, in the past, before the 20th century a lot of these systems didn’t exist. The more complex a system is, the harder it is for a non-specialist, i.e. nearly everyone, to understand it let alone design, build and maintain it.

Similar to the KISS Principle

The idea of simplicity in design, and indeed in life generally, is so powerful that many people have articulated it in different ways – here are a few famous ones.

  • E.F. Schumacher – “Any fool can make things complicated, it requires a genius to make things simple.”
  • Leonardo da Vinci – “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
  • Shakespeare – “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
  • Mies van der Rohe – “Less is more.”
  • Dr. Seuss – “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
  • Antoine de Saint Exupéry – “It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
  • Albert Einstein – “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
  • Henry David Thoreau – “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
  • William of Occam – Occam’s razor – states that the simplest theory or solution is often the best.
  • Mahatma Gandhi – “Simplicity is the essence of universality.”
  • Thomas Jefferson – “Never use two words when one will do.”

Summary – The KISS Principle

In summary, The KISS principle allows for easy understanding, cost-effectiveness, and minimisation of waste. As E.F. Schumacher wrote any fool can create complexity but it takes a touch of genius to make things simple.