Writing as Little as Possible

Tamara Shopsin

Arbitrary Stupid Goal

A few months ago I traveled to India for work. I went north and south, seeing auto rickshaws and UNESCO architecture.

One of the best things I saw was a logo.


The logo stands for the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

NID is a school that teaches in the style of learning by doing. The school was built to act as a bridge between the traditional craft industries of India and modern design.

When I found out the logo was designed by Adrian Frutiger, the Swiss typographer, I felt like an asshole.

So I decided the best thing I saw in India was the way local fruit vendors used tinsel to keep flies away from their fruit.

Tamara Orange

But the logo does everything right. It looks good big and small; it works inverted.

NID gif

The logo is like a compressed file you unpack. One way to unpack it is by using the negative space to construct a lowercase “i,” which then suggests a student.

It has an economy of form and can’t be reduced further.

Lots of design thinkers glow in the dark about this wasteless elegance. Buckminster Fuller talks about “ephemeralization”—doing more with less until you can do things with nothing. Mies van der Rohe has his maxim: “Less is more.”

And then there is Dieter Rams, whose motto is: “Less but better.”

Rams was an industrial designer. He is famous for the timeless products he made for Braun, which include a record player nicknamed “Snow White’s Coffin.”

Snow White

Rams also made a list of ten design principles. To me, number ten is the truest of all: Good design is as little design as possible.

• • •

There is a vein of writing that feels related to Rams and Co’s brand of minimalism. It is called the Iceberg Theory (or Theory of Omission) and was championed by Ernest Hemingway.

The theory has to do with the fact that just the tip of an iceberg shows above the water. Below the water is the real mass of the iceberg. But you don’t need to see that mass—it is implied by the tip. So it follows that you can omit large parts of a story, because the reader will be able to infer them. The way a person can infer an “N” from a triangle.

Sorry if this is Writing 101. I only learned about the theory last September when I illustrated an article by John McPhee called Omission.

Read the article! It is funny and wise. Its limo length is endearing given the topic. That is to say: I am not going to explain omission writing here. Though I do feel it is related to the way I write.

I will talk about the illustration I did for the piece.

In illustration you get a story and must come up with a visual that hits at the gist of it. The hardest part of illustration is figuring out what to illustrate.

My first idea for the story was a celebration of editing. I made a meta-cut paper snowflake and e-mailed it to the art director, Chris Curry.


Chris asked if I could give her another idea.

I came up with a typewriter whose type bars were replaced with a saw blade. This idea was instantly approved.

McPhee Omisson Shopsin

The illustration hit at the heart of the story—that one can write not just by what one puts in but by what one leaves out. It was also in the spirit of omission, using less to say more.

• • •

There are other design branches: maximalism, decorative arts, postmodernism, and on and on. I’m not knocking them, but Rams & Co is the Kool-Aid I drink. And it is in the backbeat of everything I do.

This includes the way I write, which I’m not sure how to talk about. Except that my top principle would be: Writing as Little as Possible.

Read the book and see if I succeeded.

Arbitrary Stupid Goal

Barnes and Noble


Tamara Shopsin is a well-known cook at the distinctly New York City eatery Shopsin’s, a New York Times and New Yorker illustrator, and the author of 5 Year Diary and What Is This?, as well as the coauthor of This Equals That and Mumbai New York Scranton. She lives in New York City with her husband.