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Noise and elimination of the nonessential

The "fish story" and conscious reduction of the nonessential

Fresh_fishSimplicity is the elimination of the superfluous. The best speakers present key messages that are simple yet not watered down, trivialized, or compromised. Their speech and their visuals get to the essence of what's important. They know how to give proper scope and yet also are skilled at going in depth and still making it all make sense. This kind of quality is usually only the result of (1) a lot of experience presenting on the same topic or (2) with a great deal of rehearsing, critique, and editing.

Through practice and experience, we can get the essence of our talk down. Here, MIT Professor, John Maeda, recalls an example of how a great deal of experience and practice helped a lecturer perfect his presentation. Recalls Maeda, "Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the essence of what he wished to convey. This brings me to the Ninth Law of simplicity:

"Simplification most commonly occurs through conscious reduction; the more uncommon form involves subconscious compression."
                                  John Maeda, MIT

What can you do to consciously reduce the nonessential?
A few weeks ago I spoke for one of my favorite companies in Silicon Valley. One of the attendees, Deepak, wrote to me when I got back to Japan to share a story he heard while growing up in India. Here's what Deepak said:

When you talked about reducing the text on the slides, I was reminded of a story from my childhood in India. When Vijay opened his store he put up a sign that said "We Sell Fresh Fish Here." His father stopped by and said that the word "We" suggests an emphasis on the seller rather than the customer, and is really not needed. So the sign was changed to "Fresh Fish Sold Here." His brother came by and suggested that the word "here" could be done away with -- it was superfluous. doing?" Later, his neighbor stopped by to congratulate him. Then he mentioned that all passers-by could easily tell that the fish was really fresh. Mentioning the word fresh actually made it sound defensive as though there was room for doubt about the freshness. Now the sign just read: "FISH." As Vijay was walking back to his shop after a break he noticed that one could identify the fish from its smell from very far, at a distance from which one could barely read the sign. He knew there was no need for the word "FISH."

A presentation slide is different from a billboard or magazine ad (and very different from a document or website), but how can you apply the spirit of this story's message to the design of your visual messages?

Seth Godin mentioned this fish story recently as well.
MIT professor John Maeda's website on simplicity is a must read for anyone interested in design and simplicity.

A special thank you to Deepak for this great story. Does anyone know the origins of this tale?


Paul Hertz

Walter Isaacson in his excellent biography of Ben Franklin—Ben Franklin: An American Life (pg 313) relates a similar story. This is an anecdote recounted by Thomas Jefferson about Franklin. Jefferson was feeling distraught as his original draft of the Declaration of Independence was being subjected to some merciless editing. Franklin sensing Jefferson's distress tried to cheer him up.

From the book:

Jefferson was distraught. "I was sitting by Dr. Franklin," he recalled,"who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations." But the process (in addition to in fact improving the great document) had the delightful consequence of eliciting from Franklin, who sought to console Jefferson, one of his most famous little tales. When he was a young printer, a friend started out in the hat-making business wanted a sign for his shop. As Franklin recounted:

He composed it in these words,"John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money," with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their ammendments. The first he showed it to thought the word "Hatter" tautologous, because followed by the words "makes hats" which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word "makes" might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats...He struck it out. A third said he thought the words "for ready money" were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Everyone who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with; and the inscription now stood, "John Thompson sells hats." "Sells hats!" says his next friend; "why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?" It was stricken out, and "hats" followed, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to "John Thompson," with the figure of a hat subjoined."

This story was quoted from Jefferson's papers. Did this really happen to Franklin as a young printer? Who knows—but it's a great story anyway.

martin cohen

I remember reading this in "Treasury of Jewish Folklore" when I was a kid. It was, of course, set in Eastern Europe in a small Jewish village.

Steve Nguyen

That's a great story. So simple and yet powerful. I could picture this story in a short video clip!

martin cohen

I checked the reference. Here it is:
"A Treasury of Jewish Folklore", 1948, edited by Nathan Ausubel.

Page 347, "Poor Fish"

A fish dealer in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx [NOT in Europe] once put out a sign reading: "Fresh fish sold here."

The rest is essentially the same.


Thanks, Paul, Martin, Steve. It's a good, universal story...

Roger Barlow

grreat stoy and the points are well made. However, may i lightly point out a tiny drawback - FRESH fish has no smell. Only older fish smells.....

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