The great architect Mies van der Rohe was one of the first people in design industry to use the phrase “less is more,” but he never really defined it. Maybe because of that, people have been using it rather narrowly to describe aesthetics that focused on simplicity, associating it with Mies’ iconic International Style that focused on clean “skin-and-bones” architecture that let beauty and functionality emerge from minimum amount of materials/design details.
But the potential of “less is more” is actually larger than simple design. You can apply the notion to just about anything once you grasp the true relationship of “less” and “more,” and figure out how you can leverage “less” in order to generate “more.” The benefits are invaluable: you’ll be finally free from the constant pressure to buy “more” in order to feel happy, which must have been costing you financially and emotionally. In this series, we explore different ways to apply “less is more” to our daily lives to make them more abundant and fulfilling.
General tools: are they literally the tools to make our life easier and happier?
If “we’ll make your life easier” marketing mantra can only be used in one product category, it should go to general tools, as humans have been using them for tens of thousands of years to make a variety of tasks more effective and efficient, less painful and easier. It’s the prime area to examine the relationship of “less” and “more,” and observe how “more” can easily be diminished to “less” in today’s highly commercialized world as we completely forget how to unleash unlimited potential of “less.”
Human’s history is also a history of tools. They have been designing a wide range of tools with certain functionalities in order to accomplish as many jobs as possible with limited resources. If we think of tools through the lens of the relationship of “less” and “more,” it would be reasonable to assume that more tools would make our lives easier – so “more is more,” or more is better. Let’s verify if this is the case.
Before the industrialization and modernization, people didn’t have abundant resources to produce plethora of products. So they focused on very basic functions such as “cut.” They invented knives, which consisted of basic blades with a handle. Despite differences in design/material details, traditional knives look very similar across the globe, suggesting that the functionality people expected in knives were pretty much the same regardless of the culture.
Pre-modern era knives from around the world.
In the days of tools with basic functionalities, your family would probably own one general-purpose knife, and every family member would use it to cut pretty much everything – to make tools from wood, cut weeds to clear the ground, break ice, cut papers, or scrape something off. You could use it to clip your nails or sharpen pencils, or even as a weapon if you wanted.
Slideshow: how basic tools were designed before the modern era
Then came the era of industrialization and mass production, which completely changed the narrative of how tools were made and used. As the economy developed, tool design transformed from craftsmanship to huge business endeavors, which changed the focus from perfectioning fundamental functionalities to finding new niche for which consumers will be willing to pay. And such niche was everything that would “make your life easier.” Today, instead of one versatile knife that requires some practicing for effective handling, we have an array of easy tools – scissors to cut paper neatly, machetes to clear heavy underbrush, hand pruners to clip branches, wood carvers for woodcarving, nail clippers and pencil sharpeners. The list goes on and on, as manufacturers keep finding easier ways to get the job done.
It almost seems that mass production has achieved “more is more” in general tools category, as we are able to get a lot more job done incredibly faster and easier. With the emergence of pencil sharpeners, the task of sharpening a pencil changed from skillfully using a knife to hand-cranking of a small machine, and then to simply thrashing a pencil in a hole when it became electric. It saved us tremendous amount time and efforts. More specialized tools, more completed jobs with a lot less efforts. Sounds like a win-win.
Let’s flip the coin now. Were there any negative consequences, or things we had to give up in order to acquire more specialized tools to get more jobs done?
The most straightforward one would be increased expenses. Specialized tools can perform narrowly defined tasks very nicely, which comes in sacrifice of flexibility and versatility. If you were to compensate for that limitation, you have to keep buying each and every specialized tool. More tools mean more expenses.
But that’s the whole point, you would say. That’s what specialized tools are for, you exchange money with avoided labor. More expense means more avoided labor, so basically you bought “easier life.” There is an underlying assumption here, which people almost never question: easier life is a better, happier one. Tools help achieve that goal. But is it true? We need to examine.
According to the pioneering psychoanalyst Zigmund Freud, happiness has two parts. It’s accomplished by: 1) seeking pleasure (positive emotions) and 2) avoiding pain (negative emotions). We use tools to accomplish 2) – avoid pain, as they help us remove painstaking and tedious tasks from us. We tend think that’s all we need from tools, and do not give further thoughts. But Freud said happiness has two parts. What is the part 1) we can expect from using tools? Another pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow can shed light on it. Through his famous work of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, he defined that the highest need we seek was self-actualization. Once your basic needs are met, you start looking for security and love, and then start aspiring to achieve something larger. The largest goal in our life is self-esteem and self-actualization, which brings you the most profound happiness. If you think about it, there are very few things you can accomplish without using any tools. Artists use paintbrushes or sculpting tools. Carpenters use saws, drills and hammers to build houses. Chefs use cooking knives to prepare beautiful and tasty dishes. Tools have always been on our side to help us create something special and achieve our dreams.
But you would say: we are not talking about creation nor dreams here. Clipping branches or sharpening pencils aren’t creative actions. Daily chores are just pain, there’s nothing inspiring in them.” Well, let’s examine if it’s true.
When we use “more” modern tools that almost completely take over your involvement in completing tasks, you are sacrificing opportunities to unleash your own abilities – improve skills, gain experiences/expertise and better understand how the world around you work. More “we’ll make your life easy” tools, less sense of accomplishment and less satisfaction.
So we need some aids to reverse the course and find the way to let “less” produce “more” It means that choosing tools that are designed to unleash your potential better, not to make your life easier by depriving opportunities from you. Luckily, there are products that focus on that aspect. Traditional/old tools that survived the test of time are very good. There are also modern tools that refine traditional/old wisdom, or take advantage of state-of-the art technology to make skills a little more accessible.