Book Review – The Laws of Subtraction

Reviewed by Karen deVries, ETMG Writer and Blogger

We live and work in a reality where businesses are Laws of Subtraction by Mathew E. Maymore complicated, economies are uncertain, resources are increasingly scarce, everyone knows everything about us, and we are overwhelmed by endless options.

In his recent book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything, Matthew May, an innovation and creativity consultant diagnoses our current era as an age of excess everything.

To succeed at marketing in this world, May recommends honing the skill of subtraction which focuses on eliminating excess in order to focus on simplicity. His book functions as a guide for doing just that.

Matthew May describes subtraction as:

“… the art of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly… and the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place.”

May has been learning and thinking about the laws of subtraction ever since he spent eight years as an adviser to senior management at Toyota where he became a student of Japanese culture and Eastern thought where he learned to “think lean” in the overlapping areas of technology, design, and leadership.

All of his work explores the concepts of elegance and simplicity in innovation, business, and design. This particular book grew out of his appreciation for the work of communication designer, John Maeda who emphasizes that “simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.”

In The Laws of Subtraction, May expands on the reductive aspect of this maxim and fleshes out six rules guiding creative approaches. Here are a few examples of May’s creative rules and supporting stories.

A Couple of May’s Rules for Creative Subtraction:

What isn’t there can often trump what is.

Marketing the Scion xB

After trying and failing to win over the Millennial Generation with its Genesis model automobile, Toyota employed this rule when designing and marketing their successful Scion xB model. They subtracted hundreds of standard features and instead marketed a car that could be highly customized with flat screen TVs, carbon fiber interiors, and state-of-the-art sound systems.

This strategy appealed to the Gen Y demographic which places a premium on personal expression. Scion quickly became Toyota’s fastest-selling brand with 90% of sales belonging to new customer acquisitions. The Scion brand experience isn’t about the car. It’s about what’s left of it.

The simplest rules create the most effective experience.

May holds that telling people what to do isn’t nearly as effective as inspiring them to take responsibility both for themselves and for organizational innovation. For instance, a few years ago, Netflix determined that its conventional employee vacation plan was killing the culture of freedom and responsibility that had fueled the company in its early days. Netflix changed its policy to allow its approximately 600 salaried employees to take as much time off as they like whenever they want. This policy of no policy simultaneously eliminated bureaucratic ballast and improved employee work-life balance which, in turn, improved employee innovation.

Become a Ruler of Subtraction. Get the book.

These few examples provide a mere taste of the 50+ intriguing stories about people and companies who succeeded by employing some variation of subtractive thinking. If you’re looking for broad-strokes wisdom to creatively approach any number of challenges including design, marketing, product development, business process, and project management, this book is both compelling and provocative.



The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything on

Matthew May’s website


Further Reading:

More Tips for Navigating Excess

The Importance of Taking A Break



Book Review – A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, 25th Anniversary Edition

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