Elegant design, elegant frugality ~ Abaster

17 December 2008

Elegant design, elegant frugality

In his seminal work Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek discusses the very essence of design, which he suggests is embodied two characteristics: precision and simplicity. He goes on to suggest that these two characteristics are best captured in the (scientific) notion of elegance, that which is gracefully concise, simple and admirably succinct. (In addition to intellectual satisfaction, Papanek suggested that aesthetic satisfaction can also be derived from reducing something from "the complex to the simple", into what he called elegant solutions.) Elegant design or elegance in design is something that has been touched upon by others, including author and professor M. J. French referenced here. Unfortunately, the term elegant design has not really caught on, perhaps because of the more typical associations made between elegance and interior design, etc. Yet, elegant design deserves another look as it embodies key guiding characteristics or principles.

Of course the narrower scientific definition of the elegance has great relevance in these times of climate change and resource scarcity, and the term "elegant frugality" appears to be gaining currency (see Porritt and Lovins for example). However, elegant frugality does appear to be something of a tautology as the simplicity and precision suggested in the definition of elegance above connote "economy in the use of resources", which is the definition of frugality. No matter. Its import is that commentators are increasingly articulating the very real need to look anew at how resources are consumed, whether in a product or service, at the level of the individual, the community, the nation. When one considers that, for example, 70-80% of a product's environmental impact is determined at the design stage, the importance of elegant frugality cannot be overstated.

Our economies are hung over from over-indulgence and greed. Resource scarcity, from credit scarcity to food and water scarcity, will shape our world for the foreseeable future. These are challenging times, and whether designer, innovator or architect of change, it is propitious to consider the guiding values of simplicity and precision, and efficiency and economy, that underly the notion of elegance.