Hidden Beauty: Some aspect of the project's work
moves beyond adequate, beyond even elegant . . . and
reaches for the sublime.
Some of us produce work that is intended for other
eyes. If you're the body designer of a new car style,
for example, then a large part of the success of your
work depends on the extent to which it is appreciated
by others. If what they see pleases them, you will
know it and derive pleasure and esteem from their
response. If you're good, this derived pleasure is
a large part of your total remuneration package; depriving
you of it would be like neglecting to pay your salary,
practically a breach of your employment agreement.
Now imagine instead that you are designing the self-test
mechanism for airbags on the same vehicle. Almost
no one will see the result of your work or even be
more than marginally aware that it is there at all.
So, one might suppose that success or failure of this
work -- and any attendant satisfaction that brings
-- should depend entirely on whether or not it achieves
its assigned functionality, with no provision at all
What an error! Design is an inherently creative process
in that it produces something where before there had
been nothing at all. The act of creation can take
you in many different directions, all perhaps functionally
identical, but differing in ways that can only be
termed aesthetic. Some designs are, quite simply,
beautiful. Their beauty is not an added attribute,
not a "decoration," but a side effect of
achieving functionality in a way that is at once natural
and yet surprising. This can be just as true of those
parts of the whole that are largely or totally hidden
as it is of those that are visible to all.
Since the inventor of Ethernet, Bob Metcalfe,
is a friend, I thought I might look into the details
of the Ethernet protocol to see how it was designed.
I opened the spec to be informed, not charmed, but
to my surprise, I found that the protocol was a
thing of substantial beauty. It was spare where
it needed to be spare, elegant in concept, and its
recovery mechanism for lost packets was a simple
derivative of the way the packets were originally
transmitted. Its concept of collisions and the way
it deals with them was unexpected, at least to me,
but amazingly simple. Call me a weenie, but the
Ethernet spec brought a lump to my throat.
There is an aesthetic element to all design. The
question is, Is this aesthetic element your friend
or your enemy? If you're a manager, particularly a
younger manager, you might be worried that any aesthetic
component of the designer's work could be a waste,
little more than the gold-plating that we're all taught
must be avoided. This aesthetics-neutral posture in
a manager acts to deprive designers of appreciation
for work that is excellent, and to refuse acknowledgment
of any valuation beyond "adequate."
The opposite posture requires that you be capable
and willing to look in detail at your people's designs,
and be aware enough to see quality when it's there.
Doing this for even the shortest time will quickly
convince you that the gold-plating argument is a red
herring; no design is made better in any way by piling
on added features or glitz. Rather, what enhances
a design's aesthetic is what is taken away.
The best designs are typically spare and precisely
functional, easy to test and difficult to mess up
when changes are required. Moreover, they make you
feel that there could be no better way to achieve
the product's assigned functionality.
When their work is largely invisible, designers are
enormously affected by a manager who pores into the
details enough to appreciate design quality. When
you delve deeply into one of your designer's work,
you may be able to increase the universe of people
able to appreciate a lovely piece of work, from one
to two. In the eyes of that worker, you just may be
transformed from an okay manager to "the boss
that I would follow anywhere."
"Perfection is reached not when
there is nothing left to add, but when there is
nothing left to take away."
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupry