Sunday, December 27, 2009

Elegance is a matter of simplicity

Businesses can benefit by engaging customers in unintrusive ways
Matthew May shows how elegance is actually a matter of simplicity.
In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing
In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. Matthew E. May. Broadway Books. 224 pages.

The term elegance is popularly misunderstood. It's not about luxury, avarice or Fred Astaire. It's simplicity itself and often self contained, or damned near, and has nothing to do with wealth or fashion, yet it can affect both.

An elegant solution, to me, is one that solves a problem in a minimal and unintrusive manner. For example, what to do with the thin sliver of soap remaining in your shower? I slap it on a fresh bar of soap, then use it. It doesn't sit at the bottom of the shower. It's also not wasted. That's an elegant — albeit mundane — solution.

My expectations of Matthew May's elegant new book were, I admit, skewed a bit by my own misconceptions. I'd expected something about design and how it confers an advantage in the manner of the iPod, which solved the MP3 listening problem and opened up a new market along the way.

May touches on design, but mostly looks at the subject in terms of problem solving, covering seemingly diverse topics, such as how monks think, why roadways without traffic rules are safer, the final scene of The Sopranos, the art of Jackson Pollock, the ''Broken Windows'' approach to crime fighting and the proliferation of fractals, a recurring theme.

More than anything else, though, he looks at elegance in terms of decision making, which is very important for business, of course, and his discourse on its key elements (seduction, subtraction, symmetry and sustainability) may very well trigger something in the reader that inspires a new way of looking at ordinary things.

May is a fine writer, though at times the reader is left wondering where the heck he's going, as though he's taking his subtitle (''Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing'') a tad too seriously. And I'd quibble with that subtitle, in fact, as it's not strictly true, nor is it a major theme of the book.

But adding by subtracting or doing nothing, as opposed to something/anything, is demonstrated to be quite useful. May, summarizing a section on the absence of traffic lights in an area, paraphrases the designer Hans Monderman in explaining that "when you are fully involved in a process governed by very simple relationship rules, a natural inclination takes over, and a self-organized pattern emerges that is far more orderly than any legislation can produce. Under those circumstances, you're connected with what's around you. Lose that connection and a mess ensues.''

When you think about how the Web works and that the simplest sites such as Google and Amazon are among its most effective, the lessons of elegance and their applications to business are quite simple, indeed.

Patterns and the need to see them and make them work in an elegant manner are hard-wired into human DNA. May's wise and engaging book demonstrates how successful organizations can emulate the elegance and benefit from the engagement engendered by uncomplicated and intuitive choices.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

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