On Elegance

AudreyHepburnFor the generations that frequented movies or browsed magazines back in the 1950’s, Audrey Hepburn became synonymous with elegance. Even for the generations that followed, Audrey Hepburn has remained the iconic symbol of elegance. Ask people for an example of elegance and they are still likely to show you a picture of Audrey Hepburn. When applied to women, she defined elegance as grace and style without ostentatiousness.

MousetrapBut the word elegance can be applied to ideas and designs as well. When applied to things, it suggests something that is both simple and ingenious – ingenious in its simplicity. A mousetrap is a great example of an elegant design. While not pretty to look at, it is nevertheless functionally beautiful. When William C. Hooker patented his spring-loaded mousetrap in 1894, I wonder if he guessed that its elegant design would not be improved upon for at least a century – and maybe never will be. Hooker’s mousetrap has only 5 parts, but it does it’s job as well or better than far more complex and expensive designs. That makes it very elegant indeed.

MousetrapGameTrue elegance, whether in starlets or in devices, is rare. Many people confuse complexity with quality; pretty designs with elegant ones. Inelegance is a very common failing of even the smartest people. In fact the most intelligent people are the most susceptible to producing convoluted, over-complicated solutions to address the simplest problems. But like the mouse-trap game, these clever constructions are fatally flawed in their inelegance.

Elegance separates the talented from the merely smart. Smart people pump out 1000 pages of indecipherably complex manuscript to tell a simple short story. They build contraptions with thousands of moving parts that cannot possibly be maintained. They write computer software that is a brilliant spider’s-web of code that no one but them could possibly comprehend or follow.

The talented author writes a far more powerful tale because it communicates with an economy of perfect words. A gifted engineer achieves the same functionality with an economy of working components that never break down. A master software developer achieves better functionality in a straight-forward, efficient manner that can be easily understood and maintained even by the most junior developers.

An elegant design translated into an elegant solution is often deceptively simple. Many people take this apparent simplicity as indicating a lack of quality or complexity or value, but these impressions in fact demonstrate the strengths of the design.

Mathematicians generally get it. They understand elegance. And they appreciate elegance in equations and theorems and proofs. They have simplification techniques designed specifically to reduce an expression to its simplest, clearest, most elegant form.

Contrary to what many capitalists claim, however, the freemarket does not necessary optimize for elegance. There is this myth that competition results in a sort of Darwinian evolution of products and services into their most elegant form possible. But this does not happen in the real world. In the real world, competition moves toward the most profitable solution that the market will bear. More often than not, the greatest profitability is achieved by ensuring unnecessary complexity to hold the market position and justify high prices. The 5-part mouse trap doesn’t generate very impressive corporate earnings reports.

We can point to things like solid state memory or LED lighting, products that were delayed by the free market because they still made more money on compact disks and incandescent lighting. And those were examples where the market did move, albeit slowly and not entirely willingly. When I worked in research in the 1980’s,  my colleagues were tasked with finding alternatives to ozone-killing CFC coolants. However while there were many cheap, simple, clean alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons readily available, their mission was to find the most expensive, complex alternative possible for which their company exclusively dominated the supply chains.

The free-market does not move us – very far – toward efficiency and elegance. It is focused only on profitability and elegance is not necessarily conducive to profitability. In fact, true elegance, not elegance in appearance only, it is often at odds with the profit-driver of corporations. We need to understand this both as individual consumers and as a planet desperately in need of elegant corporate solutions to the global problems we face.


1 thought on “On Elegance

  1. Pingback: An Alternate View of Automation | figmentums

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