What is Ockham’s Razor?
O ckham’s Razor, also known as lex parsimoniae, “the law of briefness”, is the law and principle of simplicity attributed to the Franciscan friar William of Ockham (1285-1327). Ockham studied theology and philosophy at the University of Oxford and after graduating taught Philosophy at his alma mater. However, he fled shortly after he began as the Church accused his teaching of heresy. Though the law is attributed to him, we cannot find any finite proof in any of his works. There are mentions of similar theories before William Ockham’s, including John Duns Scotus who wrote “Plurarity is not to be posited without necessity”.
William Ockham’s Razor is as follows, ‘Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem’. For those whose Latin is rusty, it roughly translates to, ‘More things should not be used than are necessary’. It asserts that simplicity is preferred to complexity.
Since its invention, it has been used across several fields, most prolifically in science, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. However, it has been evolved and adapted over time.
Aristotle is recorded saying “Nature operates in the shortest way possible” and “we may assume the superiority of the demonstration which derives from fewer postulate or hypotheses.” Early versions of what was to become Ockham’s razor. Later, it was Bertrand Russel who said “Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities.”
Essentially, we are stating that simpler explanations are generally better than complex ones and that the more believable and basic the hypotheses, the more likely it is to be true.
Examples of the process.
H ere are two cut and dry examples of the razor:
1. A man is driving home through his residential neighbourhood when suddenly, a ball rolls out in front of his car. Two possible explanations are
a. Some children were playing with a ball and it accidentally rolled onto the road
b. Someone deliberately threw it in front of his car in order to cause a serious accident and him harm.
The most likely answer using Ockham’s Razor, is that A is the answer. Why?
Because, for it to be B we must assume a great deal. For example, we must assume that someone intends to harm him, and that they wanted to cause an accident. When presented with competing hypotheses to solve a problem, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions.
2. In the middle of a winters evening, a tree falls in someone’s garden, two possible explanations are
a. The wind blew it over, or
b. It was struck by lightning.
Once again, A is more likely, because B raises too many unreliable, questionable and complex assumptions when A offers a far more likely, believable, and simple answer.
So, how can we apply this in Design?
C omplicated problem solving is common in the design world. It’s easy to look at a project and complicate it by focusing on extraneous detail of individual problems than instead look at the problem as a whole.
Apple is a perfect example – a self-contained device, easy to use, intuitive with a very clear purpose and function. It was designed as whole, to look and function as a whole. While everyone else was focusing on specific problems, it was Apple that decided the project needed to be looked at as more than just a product. The end result is a group of products that not only work perfectly, but revolutionised the industry.
Another good example is every brand extension of Google.
• Googles search engine is beautifully simplistic. White background, minimal buttons, no advertising to slow anything down, efficient processes with a very clear and functional purpose and result.
• Gmail is clean, easy to use, uses the same iconography as the search engine, filters your emails into useful and simplistic categories.
• Gmaps is extremely functional, its quick, paired back and efficient.
• The video service uses the same white background, it shows you exactly what you’re watching, is accessible and easy to use. The interface is de-cluttered and purposeful.
All of Googles extensions have purpose at the heart of what they do. Each has a clear functional aspect that is central to everything else. You know exactly what you’re on the website for, it makes it easy for you to do and it works. Also interesting to note is that none of Googles layouts have dramatically changed, making sure that everyone still knows exactly how to use them, streamlining the entire process.
Unnecessary detail can ruin projects, it affects aesthetics, performance and efficiency. All design is problem solving but by choosing the more accurate and simpler route, you make the job clearer, opening up possibilities to tackle and provide better solutions to the problem.
Ockham’s Razor can be used in complex situations. Some problems require complex solutions, this is unavoidable, but when you use complexity when necessary, efficiently and carefully, then you avoid the parts of the solution that are unnecessary and that detract from your solution. For example, if you had created two functionally identical products, if you chose the one with aesthetically fewer deficiencies, then paired back its issues to create a more attractive product without compromising efficiency, then you have applied Ockham’s Razor.
Essentially, what we are aiming for is an overhaul of our process to create a simpler, paired back and streamlined process for designing. It’s a fairly commonplace practice that when you have spent so long designing something and you realise it’s bad, ineffective or overcomplicated we stop the design process. It is something I am guilty of, but if you keenly apply the Razor method then you will become far more effective at avoiding wasted design time. It is a continuous editing process, pairing back layer after layer of the project, quickly analysing issues within your work before they become too large a problem for you to address.
At the planning stage of any project, it can be prudent to find the simplest solution and, if need be, reverse the process by delicately entering more complex solutions where they are needed.
“A design isn’t finished when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I t is an extremely complicated thing to dedicate yourself to the purist form of simplicity, but if you pay attention you start to notice it in the work of the best designers, regardless of industry. The world is full of extremely complex designs, there is something exceedingly refreshing about simplicity. It can be elegant, sophisticated and understated. To many readers it may seem that simplicity is easier than complexity, but it is not the case. It takes courage to take away, rather than add, and it is far too easy to be tempted to do the latter.
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