What Does Keep It Simple Stupid Mean?

Keep it simple stupid

You’ve probably seen Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) in a meme or somewhere on the internet, but do you really know what it means or why it’s important? KISS has been embraced by some of the leading minds in the world as a means to teach and advance knowledge.

What does Keep It Simple Stupid mean? Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) is an efficiency framework which emphasizes keeping every step within a process as simple as possible. Popularized by famed Aeronautical engineer Kelly Johnson, KISS is now used in design circles to improve user experience, educational environments to enhance learning outcomes, and leadership training to maintain a first-things-first approach.

KISS is starting to take off as a mental framework for life. Have you ever heard of KISS or considered implementing into an area of your life? Let’s take a deeper look at the surprising impacts KISS has had on the world.

What is the K.I.S.S. Method?

The Keep It Simple Stupid (K.I.S.S.) method started as a design framework of thinking. The core tenant of the KISS method is that everything is better when made simple. This goes for directions, design, language, instructions, learning, and more.

It’s easy to assume that Simple Stupid implies unintelligent or thoughtless, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. Simple methodologies require a great deal more thought because they need to be replicable, scalable, and teachable.

Anyone can overcomplicate processes by adding layer upon layer and then call it “robust”. Some of the most sophisticated systems and technologies in the world are the simplest. It takes great consideration and restraint to create systems that work.

There’s been a renaissance of KISS methodology recently. From the clean aesthetic design of Apple to the thoughtful minimalism of IKEA, people are embracing KISS application like never before.

In an effort to create a mental framework for the KISS method, we’d like to present you with the Unpacking Model of KISS.

Making a process easier involves “unpacking” and making each step bite sized. This model will help you design, teach, and execute ideas with beautiful simplicity.

  1. Unpack your box and name your big goal. Everyone has a big goal. It’s the thing you are trying to achieve. Maybe it’s to finish your degree, buy a new car, get out of debt, or get your employees to do a specific task. Either way, now is the time to name it. I want accomplish “X”.
  2. Unpack your goal into bites. Every goal can be broken down into multiple bites. We call this the journey. Most likely, your journey isn’t A to B. It’s more like A to Z with a curving, winding, uphill road. List as many bites as possible to achieving your goal.
  3. Analyze each bite. This step is critical. Each bite should be an ACTION. It should be something you have to physically do. For example, losing weight is NOT something to do, it’s a goal. Eating breakfast is NOT something to do, it’s a goal. Eating bananas and greek yogurt every morning at 7am IS something specific to do, it’s a bite.
  4. Pick a specific time and day for each bite. You’re busy, you have things to do, and your mind will convince you that your bites can wait. But they can’t wait. Not for Netflix, not for Facebook, not for anything. If you fail to schedule a specific day and time to complete your bite, you will fail.
  5. Take on the first bite. It’s time to get excited. Things are about to change. Do the first activity and feel some pride. You are one step closer to achieving your goal.
  6. Proceed to next bite AFTER fully completing first bite. The number one rule to unpacking is to never move on before absolute completion of the previous bite. This is a huge reason why people fail—unfinished, half bites.
  7. Proceed to third bite AFTER fully completing second bite. You are now two steps closer to completing your goal. Keep it up, success if around the corner.
  8. Stop and analyze remaining bites before moving on. This step is very important. You’ve completed three bites at this point and now have a good idea of what “bite sized” actions really are. Make sure all your steps are singular actions.
  9. Finish your bites.

Where did Keep It Simple Stupid come from?

While there are multiple stories of where KISS originated, the most popular theory is that a man named Kelly Johnson came up with the concept in the mid-century era. He worked for the Lockheed Martin aircraft division.

Kelly Johnson and Lockheed Martin

As an aircraft engineer, he realized that systems needed to be simple and replicable to ensure maximum quality and safety. Today, aircraft engineering is thought to be the greatest example of mechanical engineering mastery. It’s now safer to fly than anytime time in history.

Kelly was considered a titan in aeronautical engineering. He was directly involved in aviation’s most exciting era, building the F-90, F-94, F-104, and the U-2. It’s interesting that a man this brilliant and well respected by the brightest minds in the world also understood something few others did—simplicity is brilliance.

Mr. Johnson was instrumental in creating simple processes when building aircrafts that made it faster, safer, and more predictable. He took a top-down approach to leadership.

Everyone from the top management to the assembly line worker required precise instructions that could be taught over and over again. Instruction needs to be SIMPLE STUPID. Processes needed to be SIMPLE STUPID.

Kelly Johnson was a master of processes and created the Keep It Simple Stupid method to ensure quality assurance was at its apex. If the aeronautical community builds the most complex machinery on the planet with the KISS method, what would it do for your business, website, job, family, or relationships?

What are some examples of the K.I.S.S. method in action?

We live in a world where the big, bold, and flashy dominate billboards and social media ads. But, there is irony in global product attraction: often times the simplest products are the ones that win the consumer over.

Products that embrace the Kiss method

Google is a prime example of the KISS method executed well. They have drastically altered their landing page from the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

At some point Google realized that an easy search experience was the most important objective.. The went from a cluttered, text filled, email collecting landing page to a clean, minimal search experience.

This KISS methodology created extreme clarity for Google and its customers: get out of the way when people search. Google soon became synonymous with browser searching. “Just Google it” became a phrase repeated by people all over the world.

Traffic signs. Nothing is worse than confusing people operating a 4,000lb machine capable of destroying everything in its path (cars). Each year, confusing signs result in thousands of car accidents from perplexed citizens. It’s not easy to move, read, interpret, and then make split-second decisions.

Take a look at this Stop Sign. It’s supposed to be simple, until it isn’t. Someone employed by the city got paid to come up with this gem. And they should probably be banned from designing traffic signs ever again. It’s just not their strength.

Jeep and Dodge. To emphasis the importance of KISS even further, Jeep and Dodge are having to recall their shifters in thousands of cars to account for not Keeping It Simple Stupid. Interestingly, actor Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Alpha Dog, Terminator) was pinned against his security gate when his car rolled down hill in a fatal accident. His car was one of the Jeep and Dodge models with this over complicated shifter. Could it have been a result of over thinking design?

Not all examples of KISS are as serious as aviation and automobile architecture. In our daily lives we can see the KISS method all around us if we look hard enough.

Amazon Fire Remote. Two hours ago I was browsing Hulu on my couch and I looked down to see a great example of KISS in action. The frustratingly and brilliantly simple Amazon Fire Remote.

I have an Amazon Fire Stick and it’s a really good technology. But on a near daily bias I have to search for this tiny remote when my kids lose it in the couch or throw it their toy box. If you have one, can relate.

Despite my frustration, the remote itself is incredibly easy to use. Up, down, left, right arrows to navigate. Play, back, forward, voice, and home button for a few more actions. So simple. I figured it out within the first two minutes I owned it.

My childhood family tv, made of wood (they don’t make them like they used to), had more buttons than this remote. I think any old timer could operate the Amazon Fire remote with ease.

It’s a really great design that anyone can use no matter what age or competency.

Abe Lincoln Spotted with the Amazon Fire Remote

How is the KISS method being used in the world of business?

BMAT – Dr. BJ Fogg, PhD

I was honored to attend an intense bootcamp with world renowned Stanford human-behavior specialist BJ Fogg, PhD. He is a pretty big deal in the field of “Captology”. Captology is the study of how we are influenced by computers and how they can persuade us to change our beliefs and attitudes about subjects or topics. It’s pretty crazy stuff really.

In 2010, he switched his emphasis from Captology to the study of human behavior and our ability to create long lasting habits. He has trained and advised everyone from Google to Virgin (Richard Branson’s Virgin). His persuasive technology lab at Stanford distills complex human behaviors into simple stupid theories.

One of those theories he termed BMAT. I learned about this theory while at the bootcamp and it changed the way I thought about human behavior and motivation significantly.

In fact, I’ve since been able to master new skills with relative ease following this motivational theory with Keep It Simple Stupid rules.

The theory states that our behavior (B) is determined by our current motivation (M), our ability or “skill” (A), and a sufficient trigger (T). This is really a simple theory when broken down.


Your behavior is determined by three core things: sufficient motivation, sufficient ability, and a trigger. Now, think about everything you are not currently doing in your life on a regular basis and consider those three behavioral ingredients.

BJ told us that that the problem for most people is relying too much on motivation. Motivation is fleeting and generally wanes. Think about a diet that failed or an exercise program that fizzled out. You started out strong, full of motivation and then…CRASH. Explaining the remedy is beyond this blog, so I’ll put in a great video from Dr. Fogg himself below.

KAIZEN – The simple art of Japanese business efficiency

Kaizen is a principle that really took off in the 90’s. Japanese manufacturers have been able to produce incredible efficiency in the world of product creation for decades. Think about the unbelievable reliability of Toyota—sitting at the top of reliability rankings for three decades.

The simple principle of Kaizen helps to explain this production mastery. Japanese businesses realized decades ago that in order to replicate solid products, processes would need to be broken down into their simplest parts. Kaizen is a system that aims to analyze every step of every process, continually breaking it down to improve efficiency.

Kaizen has since taken off. Book after book has been written about this concept. Businesses who have adopted a Kaizen philosophy have simultaneously adopted a KISS methodology.

Eat That Frog (Brian Tracy)

Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog method is extremely simple use of KISS: tackle the biggest yet most important task first each day. Tracy found that most people procrastinate or try to find something else to do to “feel busy”.

This gives them permission to shift that big, lousy activity to the back of the day, week, or month.

What if you started everyday by eating the Frog (big activity)? How much further in your business and life would you be?

The Perfect Day Formula (Craig Ballantyne’s )

Craig Ballantyne’s Perfect Day Formula is a KISS method to starting and optimizing your perfect daily routine. Ballanytne has experienced massive success by breaking his day down into simple, repeatable steps which begin earlier than you’re probably comfortable with.

I took Craig’s challenge and began waking up everyday at 4:30am to write. My house is quiet, my kids are asleep, and I am no longer fighting 10PM fatigue to work on my site. It’s been an absolute game-changer for my business.

Kaizen, Eat That Frog, and The Perfect Day Formula are all great examples of the KISS method in action.

What is Keep It Simple Stupid Design?

Keep It Simple Stupid design has revolutionized the way product, interface, and marketing designers have approached their business. As design applications have advanced (graphic design, user inter, computer aided design, etc), designers have a near unlimited toolset to build layer upon layer.

This is actually a problem because it’s easy to OVER design.

I like to think about design the same way I think about music: too many instruments playing at one time muddies the music. It’s the same for design. Too many colors, lines, shapes, functions, and movements can distract from the overall goal.

The Pocket Knife

One example is the pocket knife. Whether you think it or not, it’s actually more form than function. Sorry pocket knife lovers, it’s just not a great tool.

The aim of the pocket knife was to cram as much function into one knife as possible. The problem is that almost none of the individual tools are very good.

  • The knife is almost always dull
  • The scissors couldn’t cut a piece of yarn
  • The file is worthless
  • There are at least 6 tools that no one has any clue how to use
  • Jack of all trades, master of none

Ask any avid outdoorsmen about their tools and I guarantee they will have phenomenal single-use tools. They probably have the sharpest knife, best compass, and useful fix-it tools for their hobby (fishing, hunting, biking, hiking).

Windows 8

Another example of using the KISS method in design is in interface design. Interface design is what you “see” when you are using applications on your phone, computer, tablet, and tv.

A U.I. designer thought about every detail on those icons, buttons, colors, images, and navigation flows. With the rapid advancement in design tools (Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch), it became far too easy to “over design”.

Screens became cluttered and consumers were confused. The technology might have been good, but the design now inhibited the experience.

No example was more clear than when Microsoft rolled out Windows 8.

People were so distracted with this interface. There were a dozen applications, pictures, times, distracting backgrounds, scrollable tiles, and more. We just wanted an easy computer system to use. Microsoft dumped everything a computer CAN DO on us at one time.

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

As with all technology, sometimes we move too fast and require a few steps back into optimal user-experience. Steve Krug, Don Norman, and other great designers stepped up to the challenge and wrote books to help designers make better decisions and “clear the clutter”.

Today, book after book has been written to help you make better design decisions with the KISS method. Our two favorites are Don’t Make Me Think (Steve Krug) and The Design of Everyday Things (Don Norman).

Designers KISS Method

Related Questions

Can Keep It Simple Stupid be applied to everyday life? Definitely. We’d like to assume that there are areas of your life where you have struggled. Maybe it’s cleaning your room, flossing your teeth, saving for retirement, or playing with your kids more. Pick something you’ve neglected, break it down into smaller bites, and schedule a day and time to complete each bite.

Are there any books that can help me Keep It Simple Stupid? Absolutely. We suggest four books in the following order.

  1. Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink (This is why processes and ownership is critical)
  2. The Power of Less – Leo Babauta (How to unclutter your life)
  3. Eat That Frog – Brian Tracy (This is teaching you not avoid accomplishing big tasks each day)
  4. The Perfect Day Formula – Craig Ballantyne (How to organize your day for maximum efficiency)
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