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November, 2005

Elegance in Design

This quote comes from Invention and Evolution: Design in Nature and Engineering by M.J. French via a Functioning Form guest post by Jim Leftwich (boy that was a mouthful):

One characteristic of functional design is elegance. Most people find a buttercup beautiful, and many would say that the locomotive was at least pleasant to look at. However, the buttercup has an essential elegance, much more fundamental than its mere appearance. It is an elegant solution to a difficult problem in functional design; it has leaves to gather sunlight, oxygen and carbon dioxide from the air, and roots to extract water and minerals from the soil and hold it fast in the ground. Its stems support the leaves and flowers and transmit materials and signals (in the form of special substances). In its cells it makes and distributes many substances. It grows, it repairs damage to itself and it flowers and produces seed. It does all this in a fiercely competitive world with an extreme economy of living material, and its beautiful outward form is a reflection of its economical design.

The buttercup is a splendid piece of engineering, much more advanced and refined than the locomotive. But even so, the locomotive is an elegant design, economical in its use of energy and material, with its balanced mechanisms and well-proportioned parts, full of ingenious detail and thoughtful refinements, and the overall coherence and unity that results so often from a single purpose intelligently pursued. It has beauty for the educated eye - and because of its simple action the education need only be slight - and that beauty comes nearly all from its functional design, and very little from conscious aesthetic intention.

Design to me is the embodiment of elegance, it's trying to use just enough to do/communicate the most. It was actually another book, Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age that turned me onto the idea of design elegance. One of the characters, Miss Pao explains, "there is an ineffable quality to some technology, described by its creators as concinnitous, or technically sweet, or a nice hack -- signs that it was made with great care by one who was not merely motivated but inspired. It is the difference between an engineer and a hacker."

Great design moves out of a singular realm and solves a problem on multiple levels as simply as needed, just look at what Flickr's done (quote from the Business 2.0 article "The Flickrization of Yahoo!"

"What struck him was that Flickr solves the problem in a very elegant way: Instead of teaching computers to identify images, Flickr gets people to do the heavy lifting. Most users describe their photos with tags and make them public for the benefit of friends and family, without realizing that they're greasing the wheels of a great social media machine. Add together all those labels and you have millions of keywords -- a gold mine of image search. For a good time, try sampling the 94,000 photos Flickr users have tagged with the word 'fun.'"

It's not less is more. It's not simple as possible. It's just what's needed, no more, no less.

(Just as a side note, this is my 400th post on NoahBrier.com and I just wanted to thank everyone who's been along for the ride over the last year and a half. Lately this site has meant more to me than ever. It's just became a great place for me to bounce around ideas, speak my mind and hash out thoughts. Thanks to everyone who's commented, contributed and just been friendly along the way. I don't know why I feel especially nostalgic tonight, but I do. Must be the turkey in the air.)

November 22, 2005
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.