When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said generations ago that “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life fro simplicity on the other side of complexity,” he meant that to find elegance, you must appreciate, embrace, and then travel beyond complexity. When we use the world elegant, we’re describing a solution that is as surprisingly powerful as it is uncommonly simple: it does to the heart of a wickedly complex problem with such laser-like clarity that it leaves no doubt that the solution is the right one, or at the very least a long way down the right road. Elegant solutions solve intractable problems once and for all without causing further ones. Put another way, not everything simple is elegant, but everything elegant is simple.
Elegance is “far side” simplicity that is artfully crafted, emotionally engaging, profoundly intelligent.
This passage is from In Pursuit of Elegance, by Matthew E. May, a small but loaded book that explores May’s four key elements of elegance—symmetry, seduction, subtraction, sustainability. Delving deeper into each of these concepts, May’s examples span a wide variety of topics. He has an entire chapter on symmetry devoted to the fractal nature of Jackson Pollock’s paintings and how that observation was tested and demonstrated by scientist/artist Richard Taylor. Amazingly, the term fractal was coined in 1975 by Benoit Mandelbrot, long after Pollock’s death. When Pollock described his work with these words, “My concerns are with the rhythms of nature. I am nature,” he unknowingly presaged a whole new field of scientific research.
The implications of elegance go well beyond the fractal organicism of Pollock’s style. There are large scale concerns that May addresses in the book:
A world in which “not doing” can be more powerful than “doing” is a different world than the one we are used to, with important implications. Because the most pressing challenges facing society are in urgent need of sustainable solutions—elegant ones. Because without a new way of viewing the world we will most assuredly succumb to employing the same kind of thinking that created so many of our problems in the first place. Because precious resources such as land, labor and capital are at all-time premiums, and in some cases are rapidly shrinking or being depleted. Because by nature we tend to add when we should subtract, and act when we should stop and think. Because we need some way to consistently replace value-destroying complexity with value-creating simplicity. Because we need to know how to make room for more of what matters by eliminating what doesn’t.