What Does Less Is More Mean?

If you’re not familiar with this common saying—with its meaning and the ways in which it is used—it’s likely pretty confusing. After all, the words less and more are antonyms: They’re one another’s literal opposite. So how could less be more?! Before you get too frustrated thinking about it, keep reading to understand this characteristically idiomatic expression.

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What Does Less Is More Mean?

The saying is used to convey that less of something—a smaller amount of it—can at times be better than a large amount of it. That simplicity is often the better approach versus one that is more complicated. When something is understated, it can actually be more powerful and effective than if it was flashy and flamboyant. 

What are some instances in which this might be the case, that less is more? As you’ll come to learn below, the saying was originally used in regards to art and architecture, with the idea that paintings and buildings are visually more appealing when they’re simple and not overly designed or embellished. Today, people still very much use the phrase in these circumstances, but also in a variety of additional occasions as well. 

For example, it’s often used when talking about an outfit. The famous designer Coco Chanel once advised about accessories: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” In other words, less is more! There’s even what’s called a “capsule wardrobe,” which takes the adage to heart. Capsule wardrobes help you have a minimalist closet, with just a few pieces of clothing that you can mix and match to make countless outfit options for all occasions and even seasons.

The saying also applies to interior design and one’s living arrangement in general: Broadly speaking, cluttered spaces aren’t as attractive as those that are more sparse, with more empty space. We also may not need as much stuff or space to be happy as we think when it comes to a home, hence the tiny house movement, which sees people getting rid of many of their material possessions and living in very small spaces. Tiny-house dwellers tend to believe less stuff equals less stress. 

The expression could even be said in regards to a speech or a story. Think about it: It may be too overwhelming for a listener or reader to hear or read a ton of details; they may stop listening or reading altogether. Fewer details may make it easier for the point or message to be understood.

Overall, the idea of the saying being that when a work of art or living space or any number of things is pared down to just the essentials, you can better focus on the main design or artistic element, or, more metaphorically, on what’s most important and what matters most.

It’s important to note that there are those who don’t believe this is true, at least not in every instance. As a counterargument, you may sometimes hear or see the expression changed to more is more.

Here are some example sentences using the phrase less is more:

  • My roommate asked me what I thought of her outfit. She was wearing a skirt with leggings, tall socks, tall boots, a sweater, and a jacket, and she had on a hat and tons of jewelry. I just chuckled and said, “Less is more!”
  • At first, I started with 20 pictures for my gallery wall, but when I hung them, the wall looked really busy and crowded. So I went with the idea that less is more and pared it down to 10, and now I’m really happy with the design. 
  • In the book I’m reading, the author uses three whole pages to talk about the attendees at a party. There are so many details and names, it’s difficult to read. I wish he had adopted the philosophy that less is more.

The Origin of the Saying

The phrase appears to have first been recorded in an 1855 poem by Robert Browning titled Andrea del Sarto, named after the Italian painter: 

I do what many dream of, all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.

But perhaps it’s most often associated with the architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, who worked in the early and middle of the 20th century. He’s regarded as a pioneer of modern architecture, and he referred to his minimalistic buildings as “skin and bones.” Minimalist design, or minimalism, is characterized by extreme simplicity. Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, believing good design is very simple, was known to be fond of the expression less is more, as well as God is in the details

Nowadays, when you hear the phrase you might think of the organizing approach developed by author and TV star Marie Kondo. She’s known for encouraging people to think about their material possessions differently, and to make it their goal to have less clutter in their homes. She offers advice for decluttering in her books, on her Netflix show, and on her podcast.

Understanding Idioms, Proverbs, and Clichés

Less is more can be considered an idiom, proverb, and cliché. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

As mentioned at the start of the article, if you were to simply look at the phrase and try and figure out its meaning, you’d probably be a little dumbfounded, as less and more are opposites and thus one can’t actually be the other. But now you know that the expression is used figuratively, to mean that there are times in which less of something can make more of an impact or impression than a lot of it.

You can also think of less is more as a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage,aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Some language experts also consider this phrase a cliché. What is a cliché? A trite, overused expression; a phrase that has perhaps become too commonplace.

Discover many more idioms, proverbs, and clichés here.

Summary

The idiomatic and proverbial expression less is more means that simple is sometimes better or more effective than elaborate. This advice can apply to any number of things and circumstances. For example, to artistic works, the interiors and exteriors of buildings and homes and to design in general, and even to conversations!