Does the end justify the means? It’s an interesting question to apply to any moral issue, and one on which MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber has no qualms answering in the affirmative.

Gruber, an architect of the now unpopular Obamacare legislation (aka the Affordable Care Act), cuts to the point:

“This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure [the Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. OK, so it’s written to do that. In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in—you made explicit healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed … Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage, and basically—call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically—that was really really critical for the thing to pass. Look, I wish … we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”

In the last few days, it has become clear that Gruber has leaned heavily on this “American stupidity” theme over and over again. And while it may be insulting—and, well, stupid—he has a point. Economic illiteracy in America is a problem, and unless the media does their job to cut through the smoke and mirrors, the public can’t form an educated opinion.  But was it right to pull such a bait-and-switch on the American public?

Many who support the law would sympathize with the notion that, hey, sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. Any war general or chess champion understands that game. And despite the president’s lofty campaign promises to change Washington, it seems politics as usual is still just politics as usual.

Though I did not support the law, I might agree with one aspect of Gruber’s statement. I accept it as a general principle of politics that most people have no interest in—as the old saying goes—how sausage gets made, and insisting on complete transparency would make a lot of legitimate, worthwhile bills impossible. It’s obviously a controversial principle, but one I must recognize nonetheless as a kind of necessity in government.

But principles are far less concrete than the word suggests, and it seems that in this case Democrats overestimated the degree to which they could stretch what Aristotle might call a “noble lie.” With a supermajority in Congress, they failed to employ checks and balances within their own ranks and pushed through a law that few had actually read, but almost everyone had a piece in writing. It was a horrible, convoluted plan, but short-term political advantages were too good to pass up. Americans who were dissatisfied with the healthcare system could accept that the law fundamentally and drastically changed it, but even many of the law’s advocates had to acknowledge that it was a poorly executed bill full of problems that continue to surface to this day.

The “lack of transparency” about what the law actually was and how it would work was strategically advantageous at a time when Democrats enjoyed a brief two-year window in which they could pass almost any legislation they could imagine—and they did. They determined that it would be easier to pass a horrible law and fix it later than to waste time getting it right and risk losing power in 2010—which they did.

Republicans claimed repeatedly that Obama and his Party were lying, and they were right. They were outraged at the media’s failure to investigate the law and hold Democrats in Congress accountable, and they were right. The Tea Party protests were characterized as a racist backwoods mob, but their concerns were legitimate. And here we are four years later, with a new Republican majority in both the House and Senate. Democrats won the battle, but lost the war.

In my line of work, I create a lot of advertising. Despite what people believe, advertising is not about lying to sell a product; it’s about finding the connection between needs and solutions, framing an argument with plausible substance. There’s an honesty line you don’t want to cross, because people will eventually find you out, and when they do you lose big. If you want short-term gains, then lying, cheating, and stealing might pay back quick returns. But the only way to really win in the long-term is to operate within a certain sphere of authenticity. The late Democratic majority failed to see that the same rule applies to politics—one might even call it a principle.

Back in high school, I received a bit of sage advice from one of my studio art teachers. Mine was a magnet school with a special arts program for aspiring creative types, so teachers were more like professors, and a senior portfolio was expected to rival that of a third-year college student. My own portfolio garnered a scholarship for one semester at Houston’s prestigious Glassell School of Art—an extension of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Guiding me on presentation, this teacher advised that I not try to show all of my work. Instead, I should limit my portfolio to a handful of my very best pieces.

Years later, my boss had a very similar approach, though his language was somewhat more crude: “It’s time to kill some babies,” he’d say. This was his figurative way of expressing that the moment called for making tough decisions about what to keep and what to cut, even when it hurt to cut anything at all.

There are certainly things that are better with more. We are programmed to want more, but most of the time it’s really the quality—not the quantity—that matters.  When it comes to design, as in life, the magic is in figuring out how to balance your efforts so you are doing fewer things, but you are doing them better.

Why less is more in design
Design is about guiding the audience to information and emotion that produces a reaction. The human brain can only take in so much at once, so the more you try to accomplish, the less impact each element will carry. If your website homepage shows 20 links “above the fold,” the average person will look at a few of them and move on. If your advertisement has 4 photos and just as many paragraphs of copy, the core message will be diluted. If your product has too many buttons and switches, it is too overwhelming for the user.

LessIsMoreBy getting rid of clutter that just isn’t necessary, you gain the clarity needed to direct the user’s attention to what really matters.

How to reduce when it all seems important
Maybe you’ve eliminated the “clutter” and realized you still need a lot of buttons to handle multi-functionality, and your website really has lots of helpful information that you want people to find. Great! All the more reason to make it user-friendly. It may be hard, but sometimes you have to kill some babies.

Here is a helpful 4-step exercise:

1) Set a rather arbitrary and uncomfortably low number of acceptable items.
2) Outline your needs from most critical to least.
3) Explore ways that you could make it work if you really had to.
4) Go ahead and add back in one or two things that would make the greatest improvement.

What you will find is that some of the things that seem important really are not, and there are more innovative ways to simplify information and solve problems. In the end, you will have a product that is less demanding on the end user, but also more compelling, because it stays true to what is important instead of distracting attention to less critical matters.

Apply this to life
The principle works in other areas of life. Do you feel like you have too many projects to do any of them well? Do you spend too much time on things that aren’t very important to you in the long-run? Too much junk in the house that could probably find a better home—including the trashcan?

Start by prioritizing your life with some serious questioning. What is really important to you? What do you want to accomplish this year, or over the next 5 or 10 years? How do you want to be remembered by friends and family when you’re not around?

Look at the things that currently take up time, money and space in your life and see how they line up to your short- and long-term goals. It will suddenly be clear that some things are demanding far more than they are actually worth, and it’s time to free up that energy for other things.

You can practice on your closet. Eliminate every article of clothing that doesn’t make you feel excellent, and when you shop for more, limit new purchases to things that meet the same strict criteria. Stop wasting time deciding between 50 shirts every day, when you don’t love most of them. You’ll get your time and sanity back, and still know that you look your best every day. Even if your clothes cost a little more now, you’ll know it is money well-spent.

I’m telling you, folks. Quality over quantity.

Down the hall, perhaps in the common space pitching her latest groundbreaking idea to a largely disinterested colleague, you will find one employee among the ranks with vast untapped potential. Let’s call her Amy.

Amy is the kind of person who sees the big picture, but also understands the roles of various parts and how they relate to make it work. She is a creative problem solver whose job entails constant innovation. She knows the importance of your company’s brand, not just through logo standards, but through quality experiences, because she sees your company through the eyes of its customers. She is responsible for presenting the company to the outside world, and her work—when done well—can substantially increase new customer leads and engagement. Her contribution is extremely valuable.

But Amy is a designer. If she is fortunate, she’ll have a boss that understands her real strengths and is able to cultivate them, but otherwise she risks being seen as as a glorified art student whose vocation is reduced to making things “look better,” because she knows her way around professional design programs. Her value will likely be recognized in terms of creativity and technical know how, but not necessarily good judgement and problem solving. For this reason, she will be treated as the last step in every project—the worker bee who gets it done. What a missed opportunity.

Companies must learn to recognize the difference in an architect and a construction worker. Both can create buildings, but their roles could not be more different. Designers serve both roles, so seeing the difference can be more difficult.

To help companies better utilize their design talent, let me start by clearing up some confusion.

First, design is not art. Art is interpretive, demands reflection, and tends to break with established traditions. Design uses a principled approach and has a clear purpose—an explicit function intended to generate action on the part of the audience. Real artist rarely make great designers, and vice versa. One is structured and disciplined, while the other is exactly the opposite.

Second, design is not simply the arranging of given items into an appealing composition. Design is the way a thing feels, how an audience interacts with it, what it tells them to do, and the overall message it communicates.

Thus, great design starts from the very beginning of a project, both shaping and responding to functions and challenges. Bring your design talent into discussions early on, and let their innovative nature and laser-like focus on user experience become an asset to your team throughout the whole process.

It is also worth encouraging designers to develop a greater confidence in their own gifts. If Amy begins to accept the limited view projected upon her by colleagues, she may never realize that the same strengths she uses to walk a new customer through a slick and compelling brochure or website is the same set of strengths demanded of top executives. She has to bring order, clarity and direction to her project, all in a way that aligns the company’s interests to that of its stakeholders and customers.

If Amy can design a website, she may also try her hand at designing systems, organizations, campaigns and initiatives. This is not to say that every designer can do these things well, but only to argue that if your company isn’t recognizing the potential in your design talent, you may be wasting away one of your greatest assets.