Matthew E. May - author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the best ideas have something missing.
In his book, Matthew offers a provocative case for achieving solutions that cut through the noise, engage the customer, touch our hearts and minds, and change behavior forever. These are 'elegant solutions' that involve doing less...and accomplishing more. He'll talk about how these subtractive strategies have proven so useful for companies from Apple to In-n-Out Burgers following four principles: Symmetry, Seduction, Subtraction and Sustainability.
You can listen to our conversation here.
One elegant concept I use in these conversations is the concept of Reasonable Aspirations. Erika Andersen crafted it for her book Being Strategic and uses it to describe our hoped-for goal. What was your reasonable aspiration for writing In Pursuit of Elegance and The Elegant Solution? I mean besides fame and fortune and a gig on Oprah.
It’s really, to share ideas, spark some discussion and begin to debate, challenge the way we normally think and look at the world, our lives, our professions. Some recognition and reward as a side benefit. Notion of sharing big ideas. That excites me.
Have you reached this reasonable aspiration?
Oh, no I’m just getting started. Daniel Pink gave me a blush-worthy blurb said publishing the book is simply step one in a long marathon.
What’s changed for you since you published the book?
The focus has changed. Peter Drucker said the purpose of any project is to create an audience and that comes down to innovation and marketing. I’ve written the book and now I’m on to marketing.
In your book, you talk about 4 key elements: symmetry, subtraction, seduction and sustainability. Is it obvious that subtraction is the key one? What roles do the other 3 play? Do you have an example of a great design that failed because of weakness or absence of one of these keys?
The 4 elements work together. Subtraction is more than removing things that don’t matter. But it’s the notion of restraint. Not adding. The other elements are governed by the laws of subtraction.
Symmetry is about the notion of patterns. There are patterns all around us and the more we can observe those, and clue into the things that are already going on around us, the better off we can be in crafting something that has a hope of being elegant.
Seduction: When symmetry is in place, we can leave certain things out. We can seduce people, grab their attention and engagement by leaving things out in an artful thoughtful way and allow them to supply the missing piece.
Sustainability: it is hard to even pick up a paper today without mention of sustainability. Not just from an environmental aspect, but even looking at all of things in the Obama administration and new regulations, they have to be sustainable, we have to be conscious of our finite resources.
They all work together and this is what makes elegance so difficult to achieve. Elegance is essentially made up of two things: unusual simplicity plus surprising power. One without the other gets you something less than elegance and sometimes those four factors can contradict and conflict with each other and you need a thoughtful way of approaching them.
Give me that definition of elegance, one more time.
It is a combination of unusual simplicity or uncommon or extreme simplicity plus surprising power. There is a notion of surprise but it is the impact. Oliver Wendell Holmes said: I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for simplicity on that side of complexity.
There are two brands of simplicity: Simplistic side of complexity with is to say that not everything simple is elegant, but everything elegant is simple. Elegance hopes to achieve is that simplicity that takes into account that complexity isn’t going away, but if we are thoughtful about it, purposeful, and artful, we can manage and exploit that complexity. We can realize the power that comes from making things seem simple for our customers, for our audience.
Do you have an example of a great design that failed because of weakness or absence of one of these 4 keys?
Toyota and its initial inability to market to the New Millenials. the Gen Y’s of the world. They realized their customer base was aging, and the threat was if they didn’t plug into the new generation of consumers they would be out of business by 2020. They needed to plug into the new generation of consumers. They created an internal group of thinkers to manage this program, the Genesis group and it included all the hot, hip-hop designers...with the average age of 35.
They failed miserably.
They had the marketing but not the innovation. They failed miserably in trying to market this brand. Toyota realized they needed a new idea, a new brand to touch this market, to meet the needs of this generation.
The marketers were so out of touch with this market that they started hanging out at of all places, raves and extreme sporting events, urban art shows. Out of that came the Scion was born, personalized to this group, so hot, that they could not keep on the dealer’s lots.
They succeeded from their original series of failure.
Toyotals successful because they are able to implement 1 million ideas a year. Their notion is there’s no failure in the attempt.
I’m a big believer in teachers always learn more than their students. I think it applies to authors as well. What is the most important discovery you’ve had about elegant design, the theory, the practice, how it’s applied or not in corporations, since you wrote this book?
My biggest AH HA! moment came before I wrote either of these books. The answer is the premise of the book in general It was that I learned that what isn’t there can trump what is. What isn’t there can trump what is there. What if the most compelling ideas are really truly incomplete? What really isn’t there? That epiphany happened 5-6 years ago. I was listening to Jim Collins.
Jim Collins-he had written a column in USA Today about “A Stop Doing List.” In it he wrote something very profound that a great piece or great work of art is composed not just of what is IN the final piece but equally what is not. Sometimes it is about what you’re not doing. That flipped the switch on in my brain. toyota’s secret sauce was in what they were not doing.
The practical outcome is to construct a stop doing list. Every time you come up with a to-do list you create a stop-doing list. Prioritize and knock out your goals and knock off the last twenty percent. We always think successful ideas need to be complete and concrete.
When we talk about elegance and the mystery of the missing piece, if you look across any domain, where using negative or white space... maximizing effect with a minimum of means or input is what elegance is all about.
You write in your book about particle physics and the string theory, Einstein’s theory of relativity and Brian Greene’s excellent book: The Elegant Universe. And I’m proud to say as an undergrad art major, I’ve read the book. Why do your readers, mostly business readers, need to understand how string theory helps solve the conflict of quantum mechanics and general relativity, the conflict of small universe vs big universe in physics research?
“The Elegant Universe” and the string theory rests upon the notion of symmetry, even super-symmetry from the standpoint that it should be viewed - from a mathematical, scientific standpoint. When we think about symmetry we think about mirror reflections, but the real value is understanding the entire universe has a symmetry to it, a super-symmetry to it. The laws of physics need to be symmetrical as well. There is great power and when symmetry is in place, we can get away with not providing complete information because the human brain will fill in in a symmetrical way, the missing piece.
It is about organizing and creating order in our world and when symmetry is in place, you can get away without imposing much order... we can just observe the patterns a little better. The rest is just filled in.
I spoke to an urban designer Ben Hamilton-Bailey, he said some thing pretty profound: If we would simply observe more, we would design less.
What is the power of the missing piece meeting up with symmetry? Why should a design team at say...Tesla Motors care about the missing piece hooking up with symmetry?
Everything flows in symmetrical ways, whether you are designig the interrior of a car, but understanding that, you can exploit asymmetry. The back of Nissan’s care have an assymmetrical design. This breaks a pattern and gets our attention. If you leave things spare, open to customization, you can achieve something that is far more powerful than you could come up with on your own.
Twitter is an example of this: everyone has the same limitations. Twitter is a very spare idea, the service itself is very spare. Every has only 140 characters. And yet all the surrounding aps have been built up around it...and wow you get something far more powerful and beautiful than you could ever come up with on your own. [Matthew blogs about Twitter's elegance here. ]
You have a video on your site, again it’s www.inpursuitofelegance.com, from JJ Abrams the Director of the TV series Lost and Alias along with Mission Impossible 3. Mr. Abrams talks about the seductive quality of ‘the missing piece’. In that video he talks about mystery, infinite possibilities, and technology’s mind-blowing garage door opener to reaching those possibilities.
That’s the holy grail of innovation isn’t it. Infinite possibilities and the means to discover and create them. Right?
It isn't technogy that open the pssibilities.It’s human creativity using technology that opens these possibilities.
The seductive quality of the missing piece.. there are infinite possibilities to create because of the mystery, the space. We are driven by curiosity. We need to know. Aristotle means said All men are driven by the need to know.
Many people don’t see technology as a door opener for access to infinite possibilities. They see technology as a threat.
How did we turn technology and its creative potential into society’s equivalent of Lord Shiva, Lord Shiva is the vedic deity that embodies the destructive element of nature.
Some may consider technology as destructive. We confuse technology with innovation. Because of the pace of technological innovation we think it is synonymous with technology. The old is being replaced by the new – sometimes we think of it as destruction, but the real power is in seeing that innovation and creativity destroys something, but hopefully we are only destroying something that is no longer of any value. It is bringing about progress.
But isn’t that the way of the world. Innovation, creativity by its nature is destroying that which is outdated.
Right now when I hear the term innovation or design, when I read about it, there’s always a tone of desperation, even futility. We’re falling behind as a nation in innovation. Our schools aren’t preparing students with the skills to innovate.
What’s you’re perspective?
There is futility about innovation and technology, not teaching students how to innovate or communicate. If you think about great problem solving and creative learning that creates new knowledge, the iterative creative cycle is the same, that underlies all these things. But we forget how we came into the world as a born learner, or problem solver.
[You need to listen to his discussion about his 2-year old’s scientific experiments for discovering which method is best for putting food on the floor.] She discovered cause and effect.
When we get into the school system, it is no longer about the questions, it is about the answers. Whose questions are we trying to answer? The teachers! This continues into the workforce as well, and we are trying to answer the boss’s questions. We lose that human ability to be curious, to ask questions. We think about innovation in the wrong way.
What Toyota was doing was NOT putting in the speed bumps in that process of asking questions. They created a confined sandbox for their employees to play. They were trying and actually successful in getting people to come to work and play. And if you can do this in a factory, you can do it anywhere.
Design’s importance, certainly the importance of elegant design, seems to finally be reaching the world of product designers here in the US. Is that a fair statement or am I an American apologist?
Why is that?
Design thinking and elegance is starting to come back. Because of key outcomes in company’s products that are really riveting our attention back to design and tangibility does truly make a difference, adding value to a customer experience.
How are you helping spread that trend?
An interesting coincidence occurred: my book got the attention of designers.
We’re all in the business of solving problems. Get people to think of themselves as designers – to observe first, understand the problem first, look for solutions, we are going to be better off.
How am I helping to spread that trying? By trying to weave a story in his book to lead people in that direction.
What’s interesting to me is that designers are picking up the book.
Of all the examples in your book of elegant design, which one gave you the greatest grin, laughter, fun as you discovered it and described it. Why?
In and Out Burger was the very first burger establishment with a drive thru. They have the longest lines; there is nothing quick about it. In a half century, they have not changed their original menu at all. What is fascinating about In and Out Burger is that while it only has 4-5 items, their customers have created a wonderfully array of menus that they have created on their own. They create their own concoction. This is spread by word of mouth. I created a hamburger called the reverse double twist where the bun is inside out, grilled upside down, and the cheese is facing the opposite direction between the burger and the bun.
The other experience I had that was fun was I won the New Yorker’s contest of Cartoon without a caption.
What industry or company consistently reaches elegance in its design? Why? How do they do that? What are the three things they do that sets their innovations and designs apart as elegant?
Apple, Proctor and Gamble are examples. If you look at what a good designer does, they think like children, which is to observe. What any good designer does is to spend a lot of time observing, not just recording what is there, but also what they don’t know. This allows them to define a problem, frame it and diagnose what the problem is. What it really looks like from a customer perspective. You need to become the customer. Observe and reflect. It is like an experiment. You need to understand the whole process and design new and better products on a consistent basis. The designers also remove anything that gets in the way of customer value.
Why and when do clients approach Matthew? What’s the catalyst, the tipping point if you will for a corporate client to reach out to you for help?
Someone has read something he has written and made a parallel with his philosophies.
Can you share with us, maintaining client- confidentiality of course, a recent win? What was the client challenge? How did you solve it? What was the outcome? What was your bonus. No, just kidding on that last one.
I worked with the LA Bomb Squad. The goal was to create a more efficient way to respond to bomb calls. How to deploy resources in most effective way. They came up with a wonderfully simple pictorial document that showed how things should flow. It became adopted locally then the new standard of how calls are handled with the LA bomb squad. These guys never thought of themselves as innovators and had no real interest in this day long process and procedure.
I’m a big fan of failure for its role in teaching. Do you have a failure, client failure, you can or want to share, where ultimately it proved a great learning experience.
Scion, and Toyota's series of failures designing and marketing it, which eventually led to its success.
Let’s say we have startups and small businesses listening in, and we usually do, and they’re thinking of hiring you. But they’re not ready. Still they need help revealing the elegance of their design, the angel in their marble. What are three tips you can share to help them?
1. Getting back to the humble beginnings. Hang on to the notion that resource constraints can spur your creativity. Harness that initial
2. Think of the customer need. People want a solution to their problem, not your product or service.
2. Remove anything that gets in the way. Once you have a clear understanding of that value they need, then systematically remove anything that gets in the way of delivering that value in the most burdensome free manner possible.
Simple is good. Elegant is better.
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