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 for aesthetics.
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. —TDM
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-Exupéry
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