Book Review – “The Laws of Subtraction” by Matthew E. May

by Dan


It is fair to say that I eagerly awaited the release of this book from the moment it was announced. Matthew E. May is one of my favourite authors. His previous books: The Elegant Solution; In Pursuit of Elegance; and The Shibumi Strategy have all resonated with me and offer a wonderful take on making things simple. I proudly possess a Daruma Doll signed by Matt (you’ll have to read The Shibumi Strategy to find out what one of those is!) and follow his Twitter feed for regular inspiration*. So when The Laws of Subtraction was announced, you can imagine my excitement.

Subtraction is a concept that I have embraced for some time. Long before I started The Simplify Guy project, I came across the idea whilst studying photography. When taking a photograph, what to leave out of the frame is just as important as what to include. The idea is that everything in the frame ought to add to the message you are trying to convey to the viewer, and anything else serves only as a distraction. The less distraction, the more powerful the message. Executing that with a camera can involve all kinds of things like positioning yourself to get the optimum angle, using zoom to focus only on the subject, clearing a scene of litter or debris, using mono instead of colour, etc etc. Upon starting The Simplify Guy, subtraction was one of the first ideas I used to get to work on simplifying my life. It covered a multitude of things such as decluttering my house, reducing my social media feeds, unsubscribing to emails, all manner of things. It has been the single biggest driver of benefits to date, as those who have followed this blog will know.

In this book, Matt comes at the subject more (but not exclusively) from the angle of creativity and design, and the examples he uses only serve to enhance the power of subtraction as a force for good. Headed under 6 “Laws of Subtraction”, Matt describes a multitude of applications from logo design to town planning to Mars landings, and all sorts in between. Whilst I have seen subtraction described in part here and there, this is probably the first (only?) comprehensive view on the subject. There is also a good dose of neuroscience to emphasise how the brain can be freed from its day job of complexity-generation and tuned into a simpler path. The closing piece around why the film The Artist was so powerful was superb. The book is engaging throughout and cleverly switches between applications to keep the content fresh and interesting, and I’ll never look at the FedEx logo in the same way again!

Having watched some of the promos for the book prior to release, I was initially concerned that the book may re-cover some of the same ground as In Pursuit of Elegance. I was delighted, however, to find that this wasn’t the case and this book follows on perfectly where the previous left off. Even if you are new to Matt’s work and simplification/subtraction in general, this is still a great place to start. Very inspirational and highly recommended!

* Note: I am a genuine fan; there is no sponsorship or commercial endorsement involved here. In case you wondered…!