Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing and the ChangeThis manifesto called Creative Elegance. He spent nearly a decade as a close adviser to Toyota and works with creative teams and senior leaders at a number of top Fortune companies.
1. Question: How do you define elegance?
Answer: Something is elegant if it is two things at once: unusually simple and surprisingly powerful. One without the other leaves you short of elegant. And sometimes the “unusual simplicity” isn’t about what’s there, it’s about what isn’t. At first glance, elegant things seem to be missing something.
2. Question: Why is elegance so important?
Answer: Elegance cuts through the noise, captures our attention, and engages us. The point of elegance is to achieve the maximum impact with the minimum input. It’s a thoughtful, artful subtractive process focused on doing more and better with less. That’s especially important during this economic crisis when everyone is trying to move forward while consuming fewer resources.
3. Question: What is the essence of elegance?
Answer: Elegant ideas—products, services, performances, strategies, whatever—all have some degree of these four elements: symmetry, seduction, subtraction, and sustainability. A great example is Sudoku. First, Sudoku is symmetrical, with its squares inside of squares and mirrored distribution of clues. Second, it is seductive—to the point of being irresistible and craze-worthy.Third, it’s subtractive in design. The Sudoku puzzle designer crafts a complete solution and then symmetrically subtracts filled-in squares to arrive at the starting grid which is predominantly empty. Finally, and as a result of these first three, the game is sustainable in terms of both the infinite number of games that can be constructed, as well as players’ interest in the game. And yet it’s so simple.
Sudoku could not be easier to learn: you do not even need to know how to count, its one rule can be explained in a single sentence, and it takes but a minute to grasp plus it is universal in nature unlike crossword puzzles which are knowledge-based as well as language-specific. And yet, the underlying complexity behind the logic needed to solve a Sudoku puzzle can be incredibly challenging.
4. Question: Which companies are your favorite examples or elegance?
Answer: Toyota is one. With Scion, they refused to advertise, and they drastically reduced the number of standard features to allow Generation-Y buyers to make a personal statement by customizing their cars. The Scion xB flew off the lot when it came out.Another example is the British bank, First Direct. It is branchless and became the most highly recommended bank in the United Kingdom. Then there’s the French manufacturing company FAVI that realized better employee relations when they eliminated their human resources department. W. L. Gore and Associates completely eliminated job titles and typical corporate hierarchy in order to release the creativity of its staff employees. And finally there’s always the usual suspects like the Google interface and Apple’s clean design.
But my all-time favorite is In ‘N Out Burger. a freakishly popular hamburger chain that started in Los Angeles a half century ago, that has built its brand on the “less is more” approach with an interesting twist. The menu offers only five items: a hamburger, cheeseburger, double burger, French fries, and a short list of beverages. By keeping things simple, founder Harry Snyder says he is able to provide the highest quality food in a sparkling clean environment.
In ‘N Out understands that seduction, and that subtraction can simply mean “not adding.” By resisting formal menu expansion they’ve avoided the self-defeating overkill seen in consumer electronics, with its “feature creep,” and the resulting “feature fatigue. ”Their only rule is “to do whatever the customer wants done to a burger.” In fact, Wikipedia shows a photograph of a 20X20, and on a Halloween weekend in October 2004, Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh and blogger What Up Willy ordered and ate—with a team of six others—a 100X100, consuming nearly 20,000 calories in less than two hours.
The twist? There is a secret menu at the restaurant that only regulars are privy to – mostly just different combinations of the standard fare like three burger patties and three slices of cheese. But these special combos have never been on the regular menu, and apparently never will, because they offer the customer a certain “mystique.”
5. Question: Which companies are your favorite bad examples?
Answer: There’s nothing elegant about excess. Open up Microsoft Word and get all your toolbars out in the open. Stuff you’ve never seen, don’t need, certainly never use, and probably don’t even know how to use. Look how much space is left for the primary value-adding function of Word which is writing. And not to beat the downtrodden U.S. automakers, but for all the divisions, brands, and bureacratic layers, you can count on one hand the number of truly compelling models.
6. Question: Why do companies with unlimited money continue to put out such crap?
Answer: I’m not sure anyone has unlimited money at the moment, but even those less worse off than others probably suffer from a dire lack of two things: discipline and descrimination. The enemies of elegance are (1) adding and (2) acting. The notion of subtraction goes against how we’re hardwired which is to push, collect, hoard, store, and consume. We’re natural-born adders which is partly why elegance is so elusive. Whether we’re talking about a product, a performance, a market, or an organization, our addiction to addition results in inconsistency, overload, or waste—and sometimes all three.
And here in the US we have a cowboy instinct, where the bias is for action. In other words, Don’t make me think, let me just do. Doing SOMETHING is deemed better than doing nothing. But that’s not always true. I spent some time with National Geographic adventure journalist Boyd Matson. He taught me how to stand still when the hippos charge. If you act, and run, you’re dead. Stand still, do nothing, they stop charging. But that is fiendishly difficult because it’s so unnatural and counterintuitive. But that’s what happens in business.
7. Question: What’s the first step a CEO should take to get her company on the right track?
Answer: When Fortune named Apple “America’s Most Admired Company” as well as “Most Admired for Innovation,” honors owing largely to the success of the iPhone, Steve Jobs revealed that a “stop-doing” strategy figured centrally into Apple’s approach. What he said was: “We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.”That’s the mindset.
And step one? Create a solid stop-doing list. Sounds simple, but few do it. Guru Jim Collins says you absolutely must have a “stop-doing” list to accompany your to-do list. As a practical matter, he advises developing a strong discipline around first giving careful thought to prioritizing goals and objectives, and then eliminating the bottom 20 percent of the list. If as CEO you do that, and demand that everyone do that, including designers and engineers with respect to the stuff they’re building, your ugly crap quotient goes way down.
8. Question: Do you think there’s a position for CTOs (chief taste officers) in companies?
Answer: Probably, but then here’s the tricky part: who do you appoint to find and hire them? You have to understand elegance first to find it. Ideally you’d like everyone to develop a sense of elegance in whatever they’re trying to do. I’m really encouraged that schools like Stanford, with the D School partnering up with the IDEO brothers Kelley, teaching “design thinking” to MBAs, and the Rotman school, lead by Roger Martin and his “Integrative Thinking” discipline, are in the mix.They’re teaching people how to balance and master the creative tension between getting it out and getting it right. It takes no discipline or genius to either spend money or to make broad cuts which inevitably tend to put everything on hold and inevitably destroy whatever value might exist.
9. Question: How should companies make engineering and user-interface design work together?
Answer: Study the best: Google, Apple, Lexus, and Ferrari. They understand that complexity is their best friend, not an enemy. They understand it, so they can exploit it. The Google interface is clean and simple though the algorithm is massively complex. Even Einstein understood this. E=mc2 has an easy and immortal ring to it. Can you imagine if he rolled it out with the 40 page proof behind it?It’s about finding the simplicity on the other side of complexity as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it. It’s about playing chess, not checkers. Both are played on the same board yet chess demands more strategic thinking and much deeper experience to truly master the goal of immobilizing—checkmating— the opponent’s king.
Checkers, with its mostly single-step play, is far less demanding, easier to learn, and quicker to play. Chess masters understand the nature of complexity—that it is part of the game, and it’s why they play it. The challenge and thrill lies in the endless search for ways to manage and exploit those complexities. Make it SEEM blazingly simple. That’s elegance. Complexity isn’t the enemy to a chessmaster—without it they’d be playing checkers. But there’s times when we look at the stuff we buy or experience and we swear that the design and engineering weren’t even playing checkers. They were playing Whack-A-Mole.
10. Question: Why do you think the Japanese have such a way with elegance?
Answer: From a practical and business point of view, there’s a historical event. The first helps you understand the second. Culturally, as the Zen philosophy took hold in Japan during the 12th and 13th centuries, Japanese art and philosophy began to reflect one of the fundamental Zen aesthetic themes, that of emptiness.In other words, less is best.
Why? In the Zen view, emptiness is a symbol of inexhaustible spirit. Silent pauses in music and theater, blank spaces in paintings, and even the restrained motion of the seductive geisha in refined tea ceremonies all take on a special significance because it is in states of temporary inactivity or quietude that Zen artists see the very essence of creative energy. The goal is to convey the symmetrical harmony of nature through clearly asymmetrical and incomplete renderings; the effect is that those viewing the art supply the missing symmetry and thus participate in the act of creation.
As for the second reason, it’s kaizen—continuous improvement. It means “no best, only better.” You see the word zen in there right? It’s zen for business, and it came about during the US occupation, 1945-1952, under MacArthur. We flattened Japan. We had to build it back up from the ashes. Their economy was in shambles, and they had just begun to industrialize prior to WWII. We taught them continuous improvement, because they had no resources — no land, facilities, or money. They had human capital.
To stop improving was to stagnate—which was to die. It was a war on all the things that make for crap: overproduction, overprocessing, defects, conveyance, unneccessary motion, inconsistency, and inventory. In short, Japan HAD to get elegant. They’ve never forgotten how they did it, and they’ve institutionalized it.
11. Question: What websites do you consider elegant?
Answer: I’ll make you blush: I love the whole “create your own AllTop page.” It’s subtractive because I select from the universe of blogs. It’s sustainable because the bloggers’ continuous ideas that supply the ongoing content. It’s symmetrical because something is symmetrical if you can do something to it and yet it looks the same: I select my topics, create my own magazine rack, as it were, yet the AllTop site remains unchanged. It’s seductive because you don’t get the whole blog, just a snippet, which whets your appetite for the whole sushi roll. [Matt’s MyAlltop page is here.]
Beyond that: Twitter! I’m relatively new to it, (http://twitter.com/matthewemay) but utterly addicted. Something about those 140 characters mandates creative subtraction. Therefore, a good tweet requires good editing. There’s a certain symmetry…everyone is treated the same. There’s built-in seduction because you always want to know more about who you’re following. Sustainability—they’re working on the financial aspect of the sustainability element, but I doubt with the mounting popularity that that will be a problem.
12. Question: Holy kaw, you are making me blush! Then how do we know features to add to Alltop/MyAlltop and balance elegance against feature requests?
Answer: I spent some time with the late traffic designer Hans Monderman and the UK urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie. Together they have designed and redesigned high traffic intersections in the Netherlands and UK to be nearly devoid of traffic controls. I’m talking intersections with over 20,000 vehicles, pedestrians, and bikes daily.
Flow and safety have doubled because they create “shared space” with no right of way. You have no choice but to be cautious and alert—and use your noggin. Ben says this: “Research shows that over 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by motorists. What’s wrong with how we engineer things is that most of what we accept as the proper order of things is based on assumptions, not observations. If we observed first, designed second, we wouldn’t need most of the things we build.” But it is not quite as simple as the trite cliché “look before you leap.”
What Ben really means is that we should become better detectives. That’s how you keep feature creep in check. The one constant source of elegant innovation is observation. The Japanese call it genchi genbutsu which means “go look, go see.” That allows you to triangulate around the customer: observe them not just by asking them what they want—they don’t always know, can’t always articulate it, and they’ll change their mind tomorrow—but by becoming one yourself.
You have to be a bit of an undercover cop. That way you don’t get too clever and add stuff because you think it’s cool—which is a design bias. Instead, you add stuff that adds value—which is a customer bias. You’ve done that with My.AllTop.com. You’ve added a customer-designed feature without cluttering up your interface. It’s what In ‘N Out Burger does: let the customer do the adding.