Blog: Simplicity, Beauty and Good System Design

Blog: Simplicity, Beauty and Good System Design

Railroad locomotives

Railroad locomotives

An influential architect describes design as the act of “organizing form under complex constraints." He goes on to say, “Every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem.” (Christopher Alexander in Notes on the Synthesis of Form, 1964)

Since there are many possible forms that can be used to solve a given problem, how do we know which one is best? Are there some principles we can apply to analyze different designs and guide us to select the best? Clearly all designs are not created equal; some are better than others. I think there are two principles that can be used to judge the goodness of any design: simplicity and beauty.

How Design is Influenced by these Two Principles

The need for simplicity is expressed (very simply) in a theory known as “Occam’s Razor” put forth by William of Occam. He was an English monk and philosopher who lived about 800 years ago. He said that, all other things being equal, the best explanation for a phenomenon is the simplest explanation, the one that introduces the fewest assumptions and calls for the fewest number of actors or entities to make it happen. Hard to argue with that, so I think the best design is the one that depends on the fewest external factors (things outside of the designer’s control) and the one that uses the fewest number of parts.

Here’s an example. The form of this bridge is an elegantly simple solution to the interplay of forces that operate between the bridge and its environment. It was chosen from among 19 competing designs because it was the most economical design to build - precisely because it was so simple.

This design also has another quality. It’s beautiful. It has influenced many bridges built since. Once you see the design it’s hard to get it out of your head; it’s a finely crafted piece of sculpture. Beauty as well as simplicity is a key element of its success.

A professor of computer science at Yale University, David Gelernter, addresses the need for beauty in design by putting it like this, “The sense of beauty is a tuning fork in the brain that hums when we stumble on something beautiful. We enjoy the resonant hum and seek it out.” He goes on to say, “Strangely enough, beauty is also a truth-and-rightness meter, and science and technology could not exist without it. It’s tuning-fork hum guides scientists toward truth and technologists toward stronger and more useful machines. It leads the way forward.” (These are quotes from his book Machine Beauty, 1996)

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