More on “Less is more”

More on "Less is more"

More on “Less is more”

The idiom “Less is more” is by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “Less is more” was at the core of his design philosophy but most of us know it as it applies to life more broadly. “Less is more” is about simplicity. It’s about how keeping things to the absolute essentials is more effective than including extraneous additional elements.


Ludiwg Mies van der Rohe was born in Germany in 1886. His architectural career started by apprenticing at various design firms but it was in Berlin in the early 20th century that he gained greater exposure to the progressive new ideas of the age. There was a growing movement, stemming from the late 19th century, among philosophers, artists, writers, and others to create a new way of thinking. This became especially necessary after World War I. People began to reject the established social hierarchy, they were in a world of increasing industrialization, fast-paced metropolises, and questioned traditional views. The old constructs of thinking were from a bygone era and weren’t compatible with the modern industrialized world. It was in this environment that Modernism was born.

Modernism embraced new ways of thinking. As people struggled to find their place in a world broken by the old regime modernism explored new ways forward. It found it’s way into design, art, literature, philosophy, music, and other fields as experimental new ways that were alternatives/rejection to the rules of the past.

Modernism was at the center of Mies’ architectural thinking and he quickly became a leader in this new school of thought. While serving as the third and final head of the famed Bauhaus design school, Mies realized the political climate in Germany was becoming increasingly hostile and emigrated to the USA in 1937, eventually settling in Chicago. It was in Chicago that he worked the rest of his life creating some of his masterpieces in modernist thought such as the Farnsworth House.

Less is more

His approach stripped architecture down to the absolute essentials; removing classical architectural decorative ornamentation entirely. It was from this design philosophy that “Less is more” was born. It was a utilitarian approach that a design is more powerful the less you add. Ornamentation served no functional purpose so it was omitted. It took Louis Sullivan’s idea that “form follows function” to the extreme. A building’s visual style should take a backseat to its purpose.

While celebrated as a design visionary and as a father of modernism, Mies’ aphorism of “Less is more”  has taken on a life of its own where it is arguably more famous than he is.

A : turning the Ox upside down

From an Egyptian Ox, to Aleph, to Alpha

Turning the ox around

The letter we know today as A has its roots in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics where it was originally the pictogram of an ox head.

From Oxen to Alpha

The letter A most of us use today is descendant from the Greek letter Alpha. The first letter of the Greek alphabet, Alpha actually is the result of an evolution of other letter forms from other alphabets most notably the Phoenician letter / word Aleph meaning “ox.” Aleph looks like a sideways A pointing to the left which not-so-accidentally resembles a sideways ox head. But the history of the letter A goes back even further. The Phoenicians created their first letter of the alphabet as a simpler form of the even older Egyptian letter / sign of an ox head. The Egyptian pictogram for an ox is essentially an upside down A.

Egyptian roots

History of the Alphabet by Art of the Problem is a great video that explores the history and changes of language & writing from more conceptual pictograms to sound signs like we use today. With the invention of papyrus the Egyptians found they created a quicker way to write things down than carving into stone. As papyrus became increasingly popular the Egyptians created what was essentially a hieroglyphics shorthand … hieroglyphics-lite if you will. This system eventually became the hieratic system of writing – it was a faster writing system to optimize this new writing technology they had created. Hieratic became easier to remember than hieroglyphics because it started to use less pictograms / word signs and instead used more sound signs, like our letters do today. With word signs you had to remember thousands of symbols to communicate. With sound signs you could combine characters to create words. Hieratics eventually gave way to demotic, an even faster way for Egyptians to write. Eventually the demotic sign for an ox became the basis for the Phoenecian aleph sign, which became alpha, which became our letter A.

So the letter A started as the image of an ox head in Egypt, as time past, it worked it’s way around the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean up into Greece where it got turned upside-down into the letter Alpha and eventually our letter A.