Saving Ockham’s Razor

I think my favourite design principle of all time is Ockham's Razor. It is named after William of Ockham, the 14th-century Franciscan friar and rock star of high medieval philosophy who said, 'Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.'

I think my favourite design principle of all time is Ockham’s Razor. It is named after William of Ockham, the 14th-century Franciscan friar and rock star of high medieval philosophy who said, ‘Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.’

Like a hit tune, the clever cleric’s dictum has been covered in different ways by some of the smartest people in history, from Aristotle (‘Nature operates in the shortest way possible’) to Albert Einstein (‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’). And, as if to use language itself as a means of making the point, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – a designer – said, ‘Less is more.’ If there were 10 commandments of design, this would be one of them.

When it comes to brand experience, design principles are critical, and Ockham’s Razor is right at the top of the list. Think about the last time your high-speed Internet went down. How many calls did you have to make before it got fixed? Talk about unnecessary multiplication.

Or take men’s shaving. I feel like buying a razor now requires an engineering degree. I can’t keep up with the technological advancements and the nuanced, feature-laden sub-branding. The more blades, the more layers of brand architecture. So when I go to the store to pick up a refill, I often grab the wrong one. Stopping to examine the various generations of branded blades just makes it worse: I get home and it’s still the wrong one. Ockham’s Razor? Not.

Chances are, the teams that design new shaving products focus completely on the shaving experience, which is as it should be. But couldn’t they give a little thought to the experience of purchasing one of the blasted things?

Layer on top of that those totally frustrating and unforgiving product merchandisers – the ones that make noises when you open them up to get your razors. It’s like a little burglar alarm going off. You immediately feel like a thief, furtively glancing over your shoulder to see if you are being recorded on security cameras or pursued by armed guards.

Another design axiom inextricably linked to the quality of an experience is ‘Form follows function.’ Think of the Hummer. In its original role as a combat vehicle, its form proved to be very functional. It was a great success on the battlefield. As a consumer product, you might expect that its combat-ready ruggedness has no function. Wrong. The reason you drive to the mall in a sexed-up military transport is to make yourself feel more powerful and commanding than anything else on the road. That is pure experience, and the design of the product is 100% responsible for it.

Brand experience design can take on an organizational role. FedEx wants you to feel absolutely certain that your package will reach its destination on time. They have designed their entire operation around that, from ordering to tracking to logistics.

WestJet wants you to feel taken care of and listened to, so it invites customers into the design process by asking them what they think about individual components of the overall experience, like cabin comfort or ticketing. And it hires people who are caring listeners.

A third saying associated with design but equally relevant to brand experience is ‘God is in the details.’ Design is generally obsessed with detail, to the point of distraction. The same goes for brand experience. It is much more important to get the little day-to-day details consistently right than the more glamourous, above-the-line stuff.

Why? Customers are more likely to remember an annoying service deficiency or a complicated return policy than a funny commercial. The commercial is fantasy, but the service experience is reality. One is free, but you have to pay for the other. Which one would you remember?

In his 2003 book, Re-imagine!, Tom Peters spends a lot of time proselytizing the importance of design as a strategic business tool. He says the same thing about experience. One of the points he makes is that both should be the provenance of not just the new product or marketing departments, but also the purchasing, training, finance and IT departments. In other words, the whole shebang.

I couldn’t agree more.

Will Novosedlik is a partner at Chemistry, a brand management consultancy that integrates strategy and experience to drive competitive advantage for clients in North America and Europe. He can be reached at