“To Put it Simply” – Teaching through and about Simplicity

Martina Windisch-Koenig
University of Applied Sciences, FH Joanneum Graz, Austria


John Maeda’s book “The Laws of Simplicity” suggests itself for an English course in Information Design as its author, a graphic designer and computer scientist, proposes ten laws for simplifying complex systems in business, life and product design. Not only is the subject matter of interest to students, it is also the unique correspondence of content and style that is appealing and invites further investigation.

I want to focus on the benefits the methodology I used offers for English as a Foreign Language learning and teaching since the use of varying tuition methods fosters learner autonomy and motivation through interactivity and multimedia. Using subject-specific authentic texts clearly raised the learners’ motivation which was further increased through fun in the activities, curiosity as the subject matter was of interest to students, multimedial learning material and social interaction.


The main aim of this paper is to show the difficulties but also viable methods of teaching English as a foreign language to students whose main subject and centre of interest does first and foremost not lie in the acquirement of a foreign language. I will present the outline of an ESP course for students of Informationdesign drawing upon John Maeda’s book The Laws of Simplicity, illustrating how a text can be used in a threefold manner, as a source for information and ideas, as an example of language usage, and as the basis for developing and/or selecting teaching materials.

Using subject-specific authentic texts clearly raised the learners’ motivation which was further increased through fun in the activities, curiosity as the subject matter was of interest to students, multimedial learning material, and social interaction. The learners were automatically involved in making choices and in modifying and adapting their goals. This constructivist approach to learning where the learners are offered content dependent possibilities promote learner autonomy and therefore guarantee a better outcome.

Combining Content and Language Teaching

To break open the boundaries of teaching mere language skills I decided to give the course a different direction and rather focus on content issues using the English language as a means of communicating these issues. This kind of interactive and mediated learning requires social interaction between the teacher and the learners where the language is regarded as a medium of learning and not entirely as the object of learning.

The enlargement of the lexicon happened partly intuitively by reading the book, but partly also through especially designed vocabulary activities. My students were asked to read two chapters weekly, from one lesson to the next, without using a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. As Maeda’s style is easy to read and the content was easily comprehensible for my design students, they understood the subject matter well enough to be able to debate on the respective passages each lesson. These fruitful discussions, where I considered myself the language expert and them the design experts were then followed by a pair-work activity to figure out still unknown words, again without using a dictionary. I tried to show them that there are several ways to “guess” these words, whether from the context, use in a well-known song or poem, the word stem, the Latin or Greek root, the similarity to the first language or by looking at the meaning and function of certain affixes.

Thus, the goal to achieve true integration of language (form) and content (meaning) was achieved by putting an emphasis on language in order to understand, develop, and discuss the content. Simultaneously, the students reached a high level of discourse largely imparting, developing and constructing knowledge themselves.

Learner Autonomy

In a communicative teaching approach, students are above all the communicators. With this transfer of responsibility for learning from the teacher to the learner, the role of the teacher has to be redefined as well. It is changing from being a transmitter and presenter of the learning material to a facilitator, knowledge base, resource, helper, coordinator, counsellor, and advisor. Herein the role of the teacher is expanded, teachers undertake additional competences which enhance their role and make it more complex than ever before.

Teachers should attempt to promote autonomy by trying to keep the balance between preparation and spontaneity. When it comes to preparation, we have to focus on specially designed exercises. Creating meaningful exercises comprising a certain social aspect, since the learner should be motivated to interact with other learners and the teacher, undoubtedly demands great commitment of the teacher. These exercises should ideally support the learner in developing better language skills as well as in approaching content issues intelligently, critically questioning them, originally and independently expanding them and reflecting upon them. The exercises can easily and effectively be combined by integrating new media into language lessons. Accordingly, I often used short video clips, mostly talks given by the author Maeda himself, as a trigger for discussion.

Creating Conversation

So, what was the trigger to get students of Information design voluntarily talk subject-related English? In the breezy treatise The Laws of Simplicity, Maeda proposes ten laws for simplifying complex systems in business and life – but mostly in product design.

This genre-specific text was the key trigger to create lively discussions among students. One precondition for felicitous conversations, however, is that the students have already reached a fair amount of language competence.

Having selected a book written in a simple but witty style with a content easy to understand for future information designers, not too specialized but rather covering a wide range of potential application fields, the reading did not generate resistance as other deliberately chosen texts have done before, but rather made them talk with commitment showing genuine interest. In order to keep the discussion flowing, it is vital not to interrupt students whenever they make a mistake, but rather pay attention to the students themselves and create a feeling of self-esteem amongst them. The focus should thereby clearly lie on fluency, not accuracy. The language is used for communication, for social interaction.

When using a text which is of substantial interest to the learners, these conversations reflect real-world communication even though the interaction takes place in a classroom, resulting in a nearly natural conversation situation.


The students seemed to enjoy the use of multimedia, valued the authenticity and up-to-datedness of the material I chose and as a result indulged in lively discussions on previously seen clips. As a matter of course, the teacher finds him/herself in a constant search for proper up-to-date material, variety in tasks and the right methodological alternation between different teaching and learning styles. This commitment is definitely time-consuming but it certainly pays off. In my case the whole course seemed to be attractive to future information designers, judging from the anonymous evaluations by the students, who described the course as the most practically applicable English course they had taken so far.


Maeda, John: The laws of simplicity, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 2006.



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