Subtle Solutions for Amazing Output
The concept of elegance is not a simple idea to describe: It is such a subtle, nuanced element of life that few are able to harness its vast potential. In his first book on the subject, The Elegant Solution, author Matthew May began his search into the underpinnings of elegance while exploring the elegant corporate strategy that led to Toyota’s success.
In his latest book, In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, May looks at elegance from a broader perspective, finding its distinct beauty and power in a variety of people, places, organizations and objects. By exploring the elusive element of elegance through many different fields, including art, business, entertainment, science and basic human nature, he develops a surprising inroad to a fascinating concept that offers a wealth of possibilities to those who master it.
Elegance is more than beauty, May explains. Going beyond its surface of pleasant attributes, May deciphers elegance into four basic elements: seduction, subtraction, symmetry and sustainability. While these four pieces of the puzzle might seem to have little to do with the world of business, May places them into the context of organizational effectiveness in many intriguing ways.
One example of an elegant business model that May explores is a Web site called ShuttleGirl. What started as a Web site intended to help Harvard students figure out their campus shuttle system eventually became the platform on which Boston’s mass transit agency, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, ran its entire commuter rail schedule.
The elegance of ShuttleGirl, May explains, is built on the simplicity and symmetry of its algorithm, the seductive nature of its elusive female logo and effortless user interface, and the sustainability that allowed it to be adopted by other cities and colleges.
Numerous elegant examples fill In Pursuit of Elegance. Through their variety and abundance, May reveals the concept of elegance as an obtainable goal. One of the valuable lessons of elegance is that it is often built on what is not there. For example, the elegance of the final episode of HBO’s The Sopranos was not found in a final shootout scene filled with chaos and carnage. Instead, to elude the limitless expectations of its fans, the show’s creator, David Chase, chose to make it incomplete by going to black during the show’s last seconds. This departure from the usual is more than clever, according to May: It is an elegant solution that has an “indelible impact on you” because its incompleteness allows your brain to create its own resolution. The act of taking away can sometimes create a very elegant solution.
May explains that “it is not just that a piece is missing. The trick is knowing just which piece to make missing.” David Chase showed his audience that he mastered this skill when he knew just what to remove from the last moments of The Sopranos. Michelangelo knew what parts of the marble block he needed to remove to create his masterpiece statue of David.
The sustainability that true elegance requires, May writes, can be found by looking beyond the obvious to find the deeper solutions that will last for creators and customers alike.
The overwhelming evidence May displays to conjure the power of elegance helps readers get a grip on the concept. Missing pieces in elegant puzzles and art allow us to find more than what would have been there otherwise. Symmetry, in nature and in fractal designs, creates elegance in our brains in many mysterious ways. Just look at the Mona Lisa and you can understand how elegance seduces and engages our imagination. Nigeria’s Mohammed Bah Abba’s double clay pot, which preserves perishables in the desert, is a very elegant and sustainable solution to the problem of spoiled food.
By examining the underlying structure that supports elegance in a variety of solutions and situations, May unveils the characteristics that touch the pleasure centers in our brains. Along the way, he also turns these traits into lessons we can use to create more elegance in our work and lives.