“Not everything simple is elegant, but everything elegant is simple.”
~ Matthew E. May, In Pursuit of Elegance
What does it mean for something or someone to be elegant? In science, a solution is said to be elegant when it is simple, ingenious, concise, unexpected and persuasive. (Glynn, 2010). Einstein’s theory of relativity is a classic illustration because something so complex is so beautifully distilled into a formula as simple as e=mc2.
When I think of elegant people, I think of simplicity and grace — like Federer’s fluid backhand. His strokes are exquisitely performed, each uncluttered, even rhythmic, with nothing extraneous. I think actor Marcello Mastroianni is elegant as well — he’s effortless and refined. Emma Thompson also has that same sense of discerning economy.
The enemy of elegance is excess. When I was a teenager my father would always check my appearance before I left the house and remind me not to “gild the lily.” So I would invariably go to my room and take off a scarf or a necklace, or lighten my eye shadow or take a tissue to my over-powered cheeks. I had to “battle my tendency to go overboard.” My father seemed to understand intuitively what author Matthew E. May calls the Law of Subtraction which states “What isn’t there can often trump what is.”
In his book, “In Pursuit of Elegance,” May writes: “The less stated something is, the more powerful it becomes.” Elegance is achieved,” says May, when “the maximum impact is exacted with the minimum input.” (2010, p. 6)
Elegance and Leading Creativity, Creatively
I believe that simplicity is the touchstone of elegance but only when it is the result of the distillation of something more complex, as in Einstein’s formula. A solution is inelegant if it is too difficult to understand, too wasteful, or it has too many moving parts to grasp its flow. It could streamline and make visible complicated relationships, such as an organizational chart, but if there are too many intersecting lines among too many individuals, it is inelegant. That is the beautiful achievement of a capable graphic designer — the ability to synthesize information using only colour, shape, line and space.
Architects and designers often speak about the need for elegance in the work they do. Designer and entrepreneur John Maeda wrote about the “Laws of Simplicity ” (2006) in order to help designers make sense of their art in an increasingly tangled world. I think his “laws” give expanded meaning to our understanding of elegance:
- REDUCE: The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
- ORGANIZE: Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
- TIME: Savings in time feel like simplicity.
- LEARN: Knowledge makes everything simpler.
- DIFFERENCES: Simplicity and complexity need each other.
- CONTECT: What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.
- EMOTION: More emotions are better than less.
- TRUST: In simplicity we trust.
- FAILURE: Some things can never be made simple.
- THE ONE: Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.
Elegance is more likely achieved by a lively mind. Lying beneath the surface of something elegant is a subtle intelligence that is able to invoke what May suggests are four elements that comprise elegance: symmetry, seduction, subtraction and sustainability. Each element can provide a template over which we might place potential solutions when we are engaging in a creative process such as improving a service, streamlining a system, designing a better product, or arranging the furniture in the living room or even dressing before a big event.
Symmetry: “Helps us to solve problems of structure, order, and aesthetics. We are natural-born symmetry seekers. Most of nature, with its infinitely repeating patterns, is symmetrical… We generally equate symmetry with beauty and balance…” A solution that has symmetry has a sense of inner coherence and balance.
Seduction: “Addresses the problem of creative engagement. It captivates the attention and activates any imagination. The power of suggestion is often stronger than that of full disclosures. Leave something to the imagination, open to an interpretation, it creates an irresistible aura of mystery and we are compelled to find answers…What isn’t there drives us to resolve our curiosity.”
Subtraction: “Subtraction helps us to solve the problem of economy. Doing less, conserving, doesn’t come naturally. Humans are natural-born adders, hard-wired to push, collect, hoard, store and consume…The trick is in understanding what to eliminate.”
Sustainability: “Sustainability is the ability to maintain something at a certain level, indefinitely.” Sustainable solutions are not the result of brainstorming. Unless there is great diversity of knowledge and widely divergent experience in the room, you may fall victim to the limitations of the homogeneity of the group and produce ideas that are nothing more than an updated version of older thinking.”
May admonishes us when we try to seek solutions before we spend time observing the situation to discover what the real question is we’re trying to address. He borrows from design thinking that takes its lead from anthropology to become the problem, live the challenge, know what a person actually experiences before you start to solve a challenge. He wants us to reframe and reframe, and reframe again, the nature of the problem we’re trying to resolve, otherwise brainstorming is wasted time. I agree! Remember the architects who spent a long time trying to solve the problem they thought they were trying to solve — “How might we design a new door?” until they reframed their design question and asked “How might we design an entry way between two rooms?” One view designs the same old thing with minor variations; the other view opens up the world of design to limitless possibilities.
So, the next time you’re bringing a group together to think of ways to make something better, really observe that situation, then formulate the question you’re trying to address. When you think you’ve got it carefully framed, reframe it again, then seek ideas on how to resolve it. When you’ve arrived at something plausible, ask, is it: symmetrical, seductive, subtractive, sustainable and simple? When you are satisfied that it is, you have arrived at an elegant solution— It will be “simple, ingenious, concise, unexpected and persuasive.”
View Matthew May at the following site: https://matthewemay.com/
See John Maeda in his 2012 Ted Talk “How art, technology and design inform creative leaders.”
Glynn, Ian (2010). Elegance in Science: The Beauty of Simplicity. Oxford University Press: Oxford, pp. 271.
Maeda, John (2006). Laws of Simplicity. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Cambridge, Ma., pp. 107.
May, Matthew E. (2010). In Pursuit of Elegance. NY: Broadway Books, pp. 216.