As simple as possible but no simpler

simplicity, small-print
Rob Waller

There's a nice quotation attributed to Albert Einstein: "Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler".

When we set up the Simplification Centre a few years ago, I used this in a prospectus and wanted to check if he really said it. This soon showed the limits of Googling: the quote appeared many times but with no exact citation. Web pages linked back to each other, and I began to suspect that every pithy remark that was not already attributed to Churchill, was given to Einstein by default.

Now I've discovered the Quote Investigator blog. I don't think it existed when I first looked, but it's a good read and gives a convincing history of this quotation.

It seems Einstein did say something like this, in a 1933 lecture where simplicity was a recurring theme (he was really restating the philosophical principle known as Occam's Razor). But what he actually said was rather longer, and was quoted in a general way by the composer Roger Sessions, who wrote in 1950 that Einstein "said, in effect, that everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler!". Remove the "in effect" in the retelling, and you are left with "Einstein said".

Many such instances exist of statements that get plucked out of context, rephrased, and misattributed. They became modern proverbs in the same vein as 'a stitch in time saves nine' (presumably someone was the first to say that). If you need an attribution, use Einstein if it's wise, Churchill if it's rude, or Oscar Wilde if it's funny; or if you're American substitute Mark Twain.

I think this process says as much about simplification as the quote itself.

Whatever you actually say in a document, it will somehow get taken to mean whatever the reader can easily remember, or thinks it should have said, or what they think it probably says if only they could find the time to read it properly. That's what's wrong with so much small print. The headline frames the relationship, the product, the apparent intent. The customer buys into this, and fills in the detail from their experience and imagination. But should they read what Einstein actually said, or what's actually in their mobile phone contract, it might not be what they expect.

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