Design Simplicity: What we can Learn From Steve Jobs and the Humble Paperclip

Design Simplicity - Learning from Steve Jobs

When you think about iconic Industrial Design, what products come to mind? Perhaps the Mini Cooper, the Sony Walkman or the Dyson cyclonic vacuum. It’s probably fair to say that the paperclip wouldn’t feature on most people’s lists, but I think it’s actually one of modern history’s greatest and most iconic product designs. Why? Because of its design simplicity. It’s everything it needs to be and nothing it doesn’t.

The philosophy of design simplicity isn’t a new one and it’s been used to great effect by lots of influential Industrial Designers. It’s evident through the world-renowned Bauhaus movement of the 1920’s and, more recently, through the products of companies such as Apple. In fact, Steve Jobs was a huge fan of design simplicity and believed that even high-tech products could be designed in a way that was simple and intuitively easy to use.

Likewise, Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century and a man capable of understanding the deepest complexities of our universe also understood the importance of simplicity. He said, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.

French author and philosopher Antione De Saint-Exupery summed it up best though, when he said this; “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Why is that the case? Well, consider the following benefits;

Ease of use

Great products fit into and enhance our lives. They are unobtrusive, intuitive and easy to use. This is usually achieved through simple design and uncomplicated interfaces that build upon the user’s experience, perception and knowledge.


Design simplicity often results in greater reliability. This might be achieved through having fewer moving parts, or through using simpler, reliable components and technology within the product. Even products such as personal computers that are built using many parts are designed in a way that employs “stacked simplicity”. In other words, the design is built using simple, proven and reliable components, assembled to perform a specific function.

Cost effectiveness

Aside from improving reliability, removing unnecessary components and complexity generally reduces production costs and assembly time.


I think most people would agree that there’s something beautiful about simplicity. Modern smartphones are a great example of this, the major brands relying on simple, clean lines and high-quality finishes to appeal to their users. They’re beautiful things, and there’s a feeling of quality as soon as you take them out of the box. Another great example is the work of famous Industrial Designer Dieter Rams, whose simple and elegant designs of the 70’s and 80’s provided inspiration for many of today’s leading brands, including Apple. In fact, Apple’s IOS 3 calculator and also early iPod designs mimic the appearance of Rams’s much earlier products.

Design simplicity is a philosophy that must be adopted and considered right from the start and throughout the product development process. Otherwise, you could end up with a complicated product that no longer meets your user’s basic needs.

Many great designs seem ridiculously obvious, but I think that usually belies the thought that went into creating them. As Steve Jobs himself once said, “It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple”.

Something to think about the next time you reach for a paperclip.

Over to You

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