“If I had more time, I would’ve written a shorter letter.” — Blaise Pascal
In the early 2000s, a search engine battle raged between Yahoo and Google. The former sought to provide everything you could want from one dashboard. The latter focused on just one thing: an extremely effective search bar. Today, there’s no question who won.
The minimalist interface used by Google wasn’t just a “design” feature, but a way of thinking—an approach to business and product development. It is also what launched Apple to success in the 1980s, and then again upon the return of Steve Jobs as CEO around the turn of the century. This was no accident; Jobs subscribed to a philosophy of minimalism in his personal and professional life. In 1997, Apple was on the brink of closing its doors. Having taken charge after a decade away from the company, one of his first major decisions was to reduce the product line by 70 percent. The company would produce just four products. Apple’s minimalist aesthetic would ultimately lead a paradigm shift for a generation of designers, and its explosive success would do the same for CEOs thinking about management and building a brand.
“The way you find what really matters and what doesn’t is to focus on purpose.”
The central idea of minimalism isn’t just to do fewer things, but to be more selective, and do them extremely well. Using this approach can prove highly valuable for at least five reasons:
1. Minimalism prioritizes.
You can’t do every possible thing with excellence. In business and design—as in life generally—you have to choose from an infinite number of possible pursuits. When you narrow these options, you have to think deeply about what really matters, and what doesn’t.
2. Minimalism is about purpose.
The way you find what really matters and what doesn’t is to focus on purpose—what can be called the “Big Why.” If you set out to design a salt-shaker, you have to start with why anyone needs one in the first place. If you set out to create a company, you must understand why you personally care, and why others truly need your product or service—the real and unique value you provide.
3. Minimalism is freedom to focus.
We encounter countless decisions in a given day. We are bombarded by thousands of distractions. Once we know what really matters, and why, minimalism provides the mental clarity we need to accomplish our goals with greater efficiency.
4. Minimalism inspires innovation.
Once you’ve removed the clutter, new possibilities emerge. When Uber revolutionized the taxi industry, it did so by eliminating preconceived notions of what a cab company was and how the business model had to work. This allowed Uber to focus on the central problems and build new solutions around it.
“The central idea of minimalism isn’t just to do fewer things, but to be more selective, and do them extremely well.”
5. Minimalism raises the standard.
When you remove all superfluous elements and allow the bare pieces to speak for themselves, it becomes painfully clear where the flaws are. Too often, mediocre work is simply covered up by bells, whistles, and other distractions that rarely add to the quality because they don’t emerge from the core purpose.
This is all much more easily said than done. Simplicity is hard.
Even if one sees the value of of a minimalist approach, it demands sacrifice. We are constantly faced with ideas and possibilities, and we are programmed to assume that quantity—more things, more features, more buttons, options, and so on—correlates with greater value.
To truly appreciate the benefits of minimalism, we have to re-program ourselves to identify the trade-offs of investing time in one thing versus another, finding the “opportunity costs” hidden in every choice we make. And, we have to muster the courage to turn things away, even when we know they are good ideas very worthy of pursuit.
Surely there were audiences for each of Apple’s products in 1996, and many smart people will argue this is cause for selling them. After all, if the company can make an extra profit serving another customer, why shouldn’t it? But this logic is shortsighted, focused on a given set of audiences and transactions, not the full picture of what the company must do to thrive. We have to see each brushstroke in the context of the greater painting, not the other way around. At the end of the day, the full picture is the only picture, and it only tells one story.