Do This If You Want To Create Elegance

We keep seeing that people are drawn to elegant products and web sites, but HOW do you design elegance if you weren’t born with Steve Jobs’s design eye?

I asked Matthew May to come to Mixergy and teach you the elements of elegance and give you a framework that will help you create with more elegance.

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May

Matthew May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance and the critically acclaimed The Elegant Solution.


Use the 4 elements of elegance

#1 Symmetry

Most people know that symmetry creates elegance, but Matthew says that symmetry doesn’t have to mean that each side of an object must be a mirror image of the other.

Sometimes symmetry is harder to spot. For example, the first time you saw a Jackson Pollock paining you might have thought it was just paint splattered on a canvas. But chances are you were also attracted to it.

Physicist Richard Taylor says if you examine Pollock’s work carefully you’ll see a self-replicating, self-similar pattern known as a fractal, which gives the work a elegance.

#2 Seduction

Products that are elegant leave something to the imagination.

Marketing scientists Dilip Soman and Satya Menon say you can stimulate people’s interest if you do these 3 things: “the first is to arouse curiosity by demonstrating a moderate gap in the observer’s knowledge. Second, provide just enough information to make them want to resolve their curiosity. Third, give them time to try to resolve their curiosity on their own.”

#3 Subtraction

In the program I talked about how I killed the elegance of one of my sites by adding more text to it because I wanted to ensure people understood it. Elegance isn’t about addition, it’s about subtraction.

first direct, the young bank (that doesn’t use capital letters in its name), created an elegant experience by removing branches from its business model. Similarly, we talked in the program about how Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France because his trainer eliminated all unnecessary training.

#4 Sustainable

Matthew says that a design isn’t elegant if it can’t last.

I think the best example I can give of this point is my first blog theme. It looked beautiful … until I added content to it. And the more I added, the uglier it got.

If you create something that looks good on the shelf but falls apart when it’s taken home, you haven’t created elegance.

Full program includes

– You’ll hear more examples of elegant design.

– You’ll learn how YOU can add elegance to your work.

– You’ll discover how Matthew got Guy Kawasaki to write the foreword to his book.

  • skotzko

    Hey Andrew, thanks for doing this interview. Enjoyed hearing Matt flesh out these concepts more. I'm the type of person where I'm always looking at new ideas and wondering “how can I apply this?” That said, I enjoyed Matt's input on UI and product design but would've appreciated even more on the practical application of elegance in designing a product, a company, a culture, a program, etc. Keep up the great work.

    Andrew Skotzko

  • jdenizac

    Wanted to say, loved your interview. You got a conversion: saw the link from Hacker News, watched the video all the way through, and now I'll be sure to keep track of your site from time to time.

  • I
    see. I think next time I do an interview like this, I can come to it
    with a list of product
    or businesses and ask how the ideas would apply to each one. That should
    give you a more useful understanding of how the ideas can be applied.
    I appreciate this.

  • I always wonder if people who discover my work from another site will come
    back or if it's just a quick traffic hit. Glad I'll see you again. And
    thanks for the comment.

  • NathanLatka

    Hey Andrew,

    Great interview. I think this provides great direction to up and coming start ups and respective designers who feel their idea must be explained to succeed. It was nice to hear Matt's perspective on how his points actually influence user interface and usage. It seemed that this elegance is basically striving to create a subconscious curiosity that ultimately builds into a relationship once the connect is made.

    Great Interview! Keep up the great work.

    Nathan latka

  • Pingback: craschworks » Blog Archive » links for 2009-08-12()

  • Paul

    These excurses in other fields than straight business and entrepreneurship are one reason why I like Mixergy so much. Good timing as well as I'm coding a new website with a super minimalistic design right now.

  • I appreciate it Nathan. I esp like this line in your comment: ” seemed that
    this elegance is basically striving to create a subconscious curiosity that
    ultimately builds into a relationship once the connect is made.”

  • Hope this helps you decide what to keep in and what to cut.
    Send me a link when your site is done. I'd love to see it Paul.

  • I didn't enjoy this one so much. I felt like it contained a whole bunch of what are completely separate ideas – perfectly valid and useful ones – but separate, that had been grouped together to create a slightly contrived formula under the single banner of 'elegance'.

    What seemed to be discussed most were valid ideas about simplicity and leaving the user to 'add their input' to a product or process. But surely one of the basics of simplicity is using the common definitions of popular words? The definitions of elegance or symmetry used here are totally different than any I ever heard. Redefining a word, surely isn't a good start down the path to elegance, is it? :)

    I think sometimes when writing books there is a pressure to create formulas that sound cool and roll off the tongue, (symmetry, seduction, subtraction, sustainable) which gets in the way of the basic principle. (This isn't an attack on Matthew, it's something I've noticed and even experienced with my own writing)

    But I get suspicious when people use the Google homepage and Apple products as examples to justify their theories, come on, that's too easy dude. And using MS Word as an example of bad software, because it has lots of features? It's one of the most purchased and widely used products in the history of the world and it helped make the fortunes of one of the richest guys on the planet.

    Sure, it might not be as simple as some (I use BBEDIT which is super simple) but you can't call Word a fail. What it proves is, the general public mostly have other needs that are much more important than elegance. (like the perceived need for more power and the latest features, which is how Word ended up with 1000 buttons and Bill got rich.)

    I think there's a danger in the general premise that 'everyone wants elegant'. I don't think they do. If you actually look at the number of units sold in most product categories, the word you would use to describe the most popular (by far) is 'average' not 'elegant'.

    There are some good points in there, I recommend watching to make your own mind up. When I find myself disagreeing with something I'm usually learning something really valuable at the same time.

    PS. how about a mini interview / intro with you new video editing dude Andrew? :)

  • This is very helpful. Thanks. I like seeing what you think.
    I'm going to leave it here as a counter-point to the interview and let
    listeners make up their own minds.

    And really? You think I should do an interview with Paola, who edits my
    videos? Interesting idea. I'll ask her. Thanks.

  • Katya

    Thanks! I liked it a lot. The interview seems a bit atypical for your site – It is more philosophical than practical (imho). Yet with clever questions and examples it brings everything back to practicality.

  • Thanks. I want to focus on interviewing internet entrepreneurs, but
    Matthew's book was intriguing so I wanted to hear more. Glad I did it.

  • mcescobar1

    Another great interview! I loved the concepts and the examples of making things even simpler. After listening to the program I downloaded the audio book and started reading. I'm already starting to think of ways to apply the concepts to what I am doing.

    Which brings me to a question: Why don't you have an email book club or something to that effect? It seams like you always are reading and these great books and the first thing I do after hearing these interviews is grab a copy of the book.

    What about doing a weekly email with your recommendations on your best reads? That could be one way to monetize the site. I'm always looking for great business books to read. Sign me up!

  • mcescobar1

    I agree that this one was not your typical interview but I thought it was great. Its similar to the Roy Spence interview which wasn't exactly about what it took to do a start up but very interesting.

  • Katya

    I didn't see the Roy Spence interview yet, but I will be sure to do it. Thanks.

  • I would love to have a Mixergy book club, but I'm not sure how to make it
    work online.
    Maybe I can try a book club at my place next month and see if I can figure
    out how to make it interesting in an online recorded show.

    Thanks for that.

    And please let me know if/how you use the ideas in this book.

  • I did both interviews for similar reasons.

  • As much as I liked my interview with him, I wish I could get you to have
    coffee with him in person. Great guy.

  • rondakaywasser

    Great program – very thorough interview – appreciated your probing on the key points.

    I am inspired to use subtraction, symmetry, and seduction to allow elegance to prevail in my new biz.


  • Thanks!

  • I appreciated this interview very much. The advice is contrary to so many natural instincts that I have and yet I know it is good advice because of all the examples discussed like Google Apple, Toyota/Lexus, In & Out Burger, etc. All of these companies are ones that I respect and I am loyal to because of their elegance, so the philosophy makes perfect sense.

    Thank you so much for this interview forum.

  • Great interview! You converted a new buyer. Added to my wishlist on Amazon, going to buy it next. Amazing concepts and ideas, can't wait to read it!

  • Cool. Let me know what you think.

    Sent from my mobile

  • Great interview! You converted a new buyer. Added to my wishlist on Amazon, going to buy it next. Amazing concepts and ideas, can't wait to read it!

  • Cool. Let me know what you think.

    Sent from my mobile

Who should we feature on Mixergy? Let us know who you think would make a great interviewee.