The Laws of Subtraction

"[W]hen you remove just the right thing in just the right way, something good usually happens."

- The Laws of Subtraction, page xii

A long time ago in a world most of us have never seen, simply speaking up got you noticed. Most folks went through life without trying to attract attention. The simple agrarian world didn’t require a coordinated online marketing network to survive.

Today if you have anything you want heard, if you endeavor to create art of any kind, your venue has shifted from “my village” to the entire world. For the past 50 years business folk have acted as if the loudest voice saying the most words wins.

Extra buttons. Brighter colors. Faster. Bigger.


In a world of excessive excess, subtraction is not only good creative and marketing thinking, it’s morally responsible.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Create Focus and Amplify Creativity By Leaving Something Out

"Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful."
- John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity, quoted in The Laws of Subtraction, page xiv

Subtraction is not minimalism, nor is it just simplification. It is the careful choice of what to leave out to create focus and allow and promote creativity. It is simplicity with the intent that what’s left out is a message in itself, like the negative space in architecture, the blank spaces in art, silences in music.

Seth Godin’s 12 Domino Project books had no words on the front cover. One reason was that since it’s always sold online, the image would be accompanied by lots of text, so who needs more on the image?

But here’s the reason I love: by leaving the words off, anyone who sees your copy is going to ask about it. What’s this? The only way to find out is to pick it up and look, or to ask whoever’s holding it.

If they had put words on the cover, they would have eliminated many of those conversations. Leaving the words out was Seth’s signal that he intends the book to start conversations; to not just benefit from word of mouth marketing, but in many cases, require it.

Importantly, that signal aligns with Seth’s message. If you get the cover, you’ll get Seth.

Subtracting the words was an overt choice, sending a specific message.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

6 Laws of Subtraction

"[The] six laws . . . can be thought of as a code for the creative mind."
- The Laws of Subtraction, page xiv

May’s ideas here are based on John Maeda’s 10th Law of Simplicity. In what he realizes is an ironic move, May breaks down the 10th Law quoted above (“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful”) into 6 sub-laws. Doing so allows us to take a deeper dive into the intentional simplicity we create by subtraction.

  • Law #1: What isn’t there can often trump what is – As with Seth’s Domino Project book covers, what’s left out signals something meaningful.
  • Law #2: The simplest rules create the most effective experience – Simpler rules lead to more investment and interaction by users. In an extensive example, May describes an urban development project where most of the traffic signals, curbing, and other pedestrian/vehicle separators were removed in order to create a less cluttered space. Drivers and pedestrians are overtly expected to behave according to the rules we already know (watch out for others; look before you step into the street.) Projects like this have shown that additional rules actually decrease safety. Fewer rules = greater compliance.
  • Law #3: Limiting information engages the imagination – Telling less engages more. Akin to the writer’s mantra “show, don’t tell,” when we give others just enough information to allow them to draw their own conclusions, the process carries power not inherent in simply describing all the details.
  • Law #4: Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints – Constraints amplify creativity. The codification of the 12-tone musical scale resulted, not in a stifling of creativity, but in the greatest explosion of musical creativity in human history. Artists know that constraints have power. It’s true in all aspects of life, not just the formal arts.
  • Law #5: Break is the important part of breakthrough – Breakthroughs come when you break away, break free, break barriers. Breakthroughs are never the result of incremental change. Changing our physical or mental location, stepping outside the security of our network, abandoning accepted thinking can all lead to epiphanies.
  • Law #6: Doing something isn’t always better than doing nothing – Sometimes, the right thing to do or add is nothing. It’s human nature to abhor inactivity. We dislike silence in a conversation. Yet at times, the silence is what moves the conversation forward. The apparent inactivity allows our unconscious to percolate. Plain old waiting and seeing sometimes allows events to unfold in a manner we could never have orchestrated.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Breaking Free: Relabel, Reattribute, Refocus, Revalue (A Deeper Dive into Law #5)

"He teaches them to reset and rewire their brains by changing the way they think."
- The Laws of Subtraction, page 161

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is when a good brain and pattern gets locked in a loop.  Four steps which help rewire OCD can help any of us change how we think.

  • Relabel – Instead of “I’ll never write a book” we can relabel the thought as “unproven negative thinking”, for example. In order to relabel the thought we want to replace we need to subtract ourselves from the equation, seeing our thinking objectively.  This is perhaps the most difficult part of the process.
  • Reattribute – Properly attributing old thinking patterns reminds us they no longer add value. Realizing that “I’ll never write a book” is simply our lizard brain lying to us, we can let go of the valueless thought.
  • Refocus – Relabeling and reattributing old thoughts puts our conscious mind in the driver’s seat.  Instead of continuing on the autopilot of the old thinking, we can intentionally direct our conscious mind to the new thinking pattern we want to habituate. “If I’m going to write a book, here are some things I’ll have to do.”
  • Revalue – As the new thinking becomes habit we devalue the old thinking.  We teach our brain that the new pattern has value but the old pattern does not. We’ve replaced a valueless thought, “I’ll never write a book,” with something that moves us forward and is better for our self-esteem: “I can do this if I’m willing to do the work.”

The example is an oversimplification, but the process is about stepping out of our unconscious automated (and wrong) thinking, and choosing new thinking. It’s a process I’ve used to eliminate some seriously negative thinking and replace it with happier, healthier thoughts.

Even before reading The Laws of Subtraction, I’d made use of its principles in my life.

My businesses each have a narrow focus. The things we don’t do say something about the things we do.

My wife and I subtracted most of our physical possessions from our life, and as a result have a life that’s more like an adventure. We’re much happier now.

Quiet time. Simple art. More space and time, less noise and clutter. We appreciate them when we stumble upon them.

In the comments below, let us know…

What could you subtract from your business or your life?

What would you have more of if you did?

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Joel D Canfield

ABOUT Joel D Canfield

I'm a creative who works mostly with words, sometimes accompanied by music. I write because I have to, and I have very little patience with money and its attendant issues...
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