Elegant Answers

Posted on July 2, 2009


There’s a quote I’ve seen attributed to Albert Einstein, that everything should be simple without being simplistic. When I describe solutions or processes as “elegant,” that’s what I mean. In fact, one of my favorite quotes from Civilization IV (for those of you who don’t know, every time you learn a new technology in that game, Leonard Nimoy reads a related quote) comes when you discover Engineering: An engineer knows he has reached perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Elegant solutions are streamlined. Ideally, they are inexpensive. They have few working parts. They are easy to maintain. They are quick to learn, and easy to remember. Elegant solutions generate little waste – they are efficient. However, they must remain solutions – they must get the job done. A piece of paper can be elegant, but if it’s lying there flat on the table, blank, then it’s not communicating anything.

A few months ago, a team I was on had to inventory, warehouse, and track 130,000 items for a project. The items had to go out, be used, return, and then be shipped out just as we received them. I was as courteous, helpful, and professional as I could be, and I still irritated some teammates when I pushed for simpler processes. I wanted elegance.  Our compromises created a system that was completely usable, and yet cited as an example for how the project should get done.

So when I say that I’m an interesting guy seeking elegant answers, that’s what I mean.