The story behind the KISS Principle

Simplification is tough, whether you’re refining writing, describing services or designing a website.

But, in many ways, simpler’s better.

That was the genius of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the guy who simultaneously led one of the most innovative teams in history, and coined the KISS Principle, i.e. “Keep it simple, stupid.”

Johnson was a renowned aeronautical engineer at Lockheed Martin for more than 40 years. He headed their secret division named Skunk Works, a now-common name for R&D departments that was initially an inside joke. (They worked near an awful-smelling plastics factory.)

Johnson came up with KISS during World War II. It was a way to remind his team that their state-of-the-art jets still had to be repaired by average mechanics with basic tools.

But simpler didn’t mean dumbed down. By eliminating unnecessary complexity, Skunk Works developed some of aviation’s most significant breakthroughs in record time.

Johnson died in 1990, but “Keep it simple, stupid” lives on as a valuable motto for all sorts of professionals.

Web designers remember it to keep their sites navigable and fast-loading. Advertisers use it to make sure pitches are clear and direct. Communication strategists advise it to ensure presentations and talking points don’t distract from key messages.

Long story short: less is more. If you want to improve something, first look at what you can remove. You’ll find you can actually add a lot of value by subtracting unnecessary detail.

If Kelly Johnson can simplify the SR-71 Blackbird stealth reconnaissance jet, you can certainly condense that PowerPoint deck.

 Further reading on the value of simplicity

Google’s CEO Doesn’t Use Bullet Points and Neither Should You

This Inc. article looks at the value of making super simple presentations: “Those classic PowerPoint slide decks with a headline followed by multiple bullet points of long phrases are the surest single way to lose an audience’s attention altogether.”

How Steve Jobs’ Love of Simplicity Fueled A Design Revolution

This long-read in Smithsonian magazine by Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson perfectly explains the origin of Apple’s ethos of simple design. “It takes a lot of hard work,” Jobs said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”

Simplicity-Minded Management

This Harvard Business Review piece examines the causes of unnecessary business complexity – like vague requests from managers – and has several recommendations and tools for simplifying.

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