Thoughts & Notions

Subtractive Thinking


Few would argue with the statements: “Less is more” (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, architect), “Do more with less” (Buckminster Fuller, structural engineer), or “Less but better” (Dieter Rams, industrial designer). The list goes on. Each of these minimalists built through subtraction. You too can benefit from a minimalist approach.

Most brands and businesses focus on adding value by adding functions. Yet, subtraction is more than just a way of reducing costs. Subtractive thinking can add real value, both by cutting cost and increasing usability.

+ Create:
Develop by designing from scratch
+ Improve: Build upon by enhancing what already exists

- Reduce:
Minimize by taking down to the bare essentials
- Eliminate: Remove by doing away with entirely

Only when both additive and subtractive change are viewed as being equal potential sources of worth, will companies explore their options fully. Companies need to look at what to remove as much as what to add.

The new economy is already seeing subtractive thinking at work. Consumers are willing to accept less when it provides more. A Netbook isn’t a cheap laptop with a tiny, low-res screen and slow processor speed. It is an affordable, convenient solution to email, web surfing, word processing… and people love them. This only goes against the conventional wisdom of getting more for your money, when you define “more” as features rather than benefits. From this “benefits perspective,” we can see that less is more, and many brands are gaining more from less.

Subtractive thinking applies to Business Models, Product Design and Brand Development. Here are some successful examples:

Saturn removed negotiations from the car buying experience
Subway removed the traditional kitchen from the fast food restaurant
Netflix removed the storefront from video rentals
Little Caesar’s removed the restaurant from the pizzeria
Apple removed complexity from the user interface
Yellow Tail removed the pretension from selecting wine

Subtractive thinking isn’t about cutting costs or corners. It is about building value through subtraction. Be mindful. What you take away from the equation, can take away from the experience. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery so eloquently stated: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

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12 Responses to “Subtractive Thinking”

  1. Ben Kunz says:

    Excellent post.

    The challenge you allude to is how organizations can manage the two opposing forces of addition (creativity) and subtraction (execution). Before the iPhone launched with its simple, elegant design, teams had to build thousands of ideas for things it *could* do. I hear Apple is structured to then streamline those ideas because it is run by the powerful master Mr. Jobs. But many other organizations have difficulty achieving such focus — building up with addition and then cutting to the focus.

    The most difficult may be multiple organizations that work with each other. Think of a billion-dollar company where marketing fights internal politics with field sales and product dev … and must also dovetail with a creative agency, web agency, PR agency, and media planning shop. The multiple undercurrents makes strong product design, pricing strategies, or marketing campaigns most difficult to achieve. Hospitals, for example, are organizations known for political infighting, and they are not known for brilliant marketing execution.

    There is an organizational challenge here that I don’t have an answer for.

    Perhaps Yellow Tail could help?

  2. Subtraction is even more important these days, as our time and attention are increasingly hijacked by faster, shinier apps and ads. Anything that makes our lives easier while simultaneously reducing clutter (fewer steps, fewer pieces, less turnaround time, immediate engagement) will win the day… until our ability to focus realigns with our new info-saturated environment, and the pendulum swings back in the direction of "more, please."

  3. Tom Asacker says:

    Great post. Thanks.

    Subtractive thinking (and doing) is challenging to most, because it requires an outside in perspective. For example, great movies and writing end up with much more in the trash (film and words) than ever reach their intended audiences. And the little that does eventually engage people was brought to life with a lot of sweat, creativity and passion for the work. Precisely what's missing in most organizations today.

  4. Fantastic thoughts and well explained.
    Refining what you put out is a huge challenge for most. Yours truly included.
    Like Justin said above, in this time where we're constantly darting our attention back and forth between things at a frantic pace it's really of the utmost importance to get your message out succinctly and not overwhelm the audience.

    The difficult thing can be getting old school thinkers who want to get the most out of the money spent on a project to admit it's time to lay it to rest.

  5. Well said! I agree with Justin. The world is a busy, distracted place. Companies need to cut to the chase with products and services and stop assuming that we need all the shiny flash. Personally, if the thing does what I need it to do, then I am happy. More than likely, I will not use the extra stuff because I like my specifically focused whatever-it-is.

    I think the pace of the world market and the global economy may push companies to rethink some of their offerings; hopefully, for the better.

  6. "Less is more [still] implies that more is better." – Jason Fried, 37Signals. The founder of 37Signals (Basecamp, Backpack, etc) has created an incredibly successful company and culture based on this thinking. Inc. just published a great article on the way that Jason Fried works

    Also, their book Getting Real focuses on the advantage of less.

  7. I caught up with a CEO friend of mine today – and he told me about his meeting last week with an author who has interviewed 24 billionaires this year.

    The #1 theme the billionaires had in common was their ratio of No’s – to Yes’s. They keep focused by saying “No” much more often than “YES” – and do not dabble in things that are not closely aligned with their core focus.

    My company has seen many companies scrambling to expand their offers in recent times with what we refer to as “Swiss army knife thinking.” In our strategic planning work with them, invariably one of the first things we must do is to help them get clear on where their core focus needs to be . Most often, this requires what Peter Drucker called “organizational weight control” – pruning away the fat to expose the muscle underneath.

    In my experience, when companies / brands achieve more clarity & focus, they find their operations and communications suddenly become much more effective.

    I agree with your thinking Mark.

  8. pshea says:

    Like the post guys – very cool thinking.

    One more to add to you list of examples: Twitter. Their model fits here, as they seem to have subtracted "elaboration" from communication!

  9. Value is key.

    With a few exceptions – soft drinks being one, if you can't offer each consumer economic, experiential and emotional value, you may make a sale but you will not gain a customer and therefore will not build a brand.

    I would put it like this

    + Create: Identify who is your customer and accept that not everyone will be. Eject unprofitable customers and then match product or corporate attributes to customers specific requirements for value
    + Improve: Build upon by enhancing what already exists with the customer and growing the relationship by listening to their ongoing and changing requirements for value and continuing to match offerings to those requirements for value.

    • blackcoffee says:


      We fully agree that brands need to provide value. I think we agree that “value” is determined by the customer, not the company. A change in perspective or belief can cause the change in mindset that can transform a problem into an opportunity, a weakness into a strength.

      In the American market business believes “bigger is better.” However, the market historically rewards simplicity (aka: Subtractive Thinking). This can get us to that “Ah Ha! moment” faster by challenging our preconceived notions of MORE, MORE, MORE.

      My guess, you’re already exercising Subtractive Thinking, but call it something else: Refining, distilling, simplifying…

      Mark Gallagher
      Brand Expressionist®

  10. @apowerpoint says:

    It appears that the adding/subtracting model applies to markets and brands as well as individual products.

    The automobile market exhibits two types of “adds” at work. The feature creep – or adding a functions to an existing model – is born out of a) the competitive dance of keeping up/outdoing the Jones' and b) those items are typically higher margin. These two trajectories result in products that over serve the needs of consumers – self-parking, entertainment pods are more than just 'a car'. When this happens there is opportunity for new products at the other end of the spectrum that serve the need in a different way; both Toyota and Saturn both started part by subtraction. (This line of thinking comes from Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma”.) Adding product lines, e.g. 17 models of a “Pontiac”, goes to the problem of extending a brand into new markets thru line extensions. The logical, managerial side says “let’s leverage our brand over in this segment.” Turns out that this is very hard to do because a successful brand hard-wires the consumer mind to mean something specific – Pontiac meant ‘muscle car’; just what was that badge doing on a mini-van? Other failures in the ‘add markets’ category include Wal-Mart, eBay, Volkswagen.

    In another area, this hard-wiring may limit Netflix’s expansion into streaming – they are known to ‘deliver DVD’s to the home’. Hulu, Boxee, or Comcast, might be better positioned to handle streaming from purely a perception (branding) point of view. One category is “Movie on DVD” the other is “TV on screen” — there is opportunity for a new category “movie on any screen” for a potential new entrant.

  11. koji knife says:

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