DESIGN - WHAT IS IT?
The reason I refer to scientific usage in my definition of elegance is because I believe that design is a discipline that shares much with mathematics. Were you to listen to mathematicians for any length of time you would doubtless be surprised, as I first was, by how often they refer to beauty. Mathematicians believe that mathematics, good mathematics is beautiful. Often when presented with a new proof a mathematician will make his or her first judgement as to whether it might be true on whether the proof itself is beautiful - if it isn't beautiful it probably isn't true. Push the mathematician to explain beauty and he or she will often use the words elegant and simple. Consider Occam's Razor. - a regularly observed scientific heuristic.
Having opined that the beauty of a good design mirrors that of a good mathematical solution I'd like now to turn my attention to the similarity between poetics and design. Inasmuch as poetry is the literary form that most bounds itself with constraints as a precondition schema I find that it is a good analogy for real world design. How often I have heard people studying design or even having recently graduated from design courses bemoaning the fact that design in the real world does not give full voice to their creativity when what they really mean is that the number and degree of constraints attaching to real world briefs deny them the flights of fancy that are gratuitously used to expecting? Time without accounting I am afraid. For me the constraints are what make any brief a genuine challenge rather than a fantasy. All design graduates should really understand this before they are allowed to complete their courses. A precondition.
To understand how central constraints are to the design process It is enlightening to identify where constraints might arise in any design brief and in order to do that I shall mix and match from several assignments to illustrate my point. Major constraints may be explicitly stated within the brief but seldom all constraints. Many of the minor constraints will be implict and easily enough winkled out. However, it is not unknown for some of the biggest constraints that the designer will need to address not only to be implicit in the brief but for the client not even to recognise them. This is particularly true of software design briefs (if a design is even undertaken) and is one of the main reasons that so many software projects overrun both timescales and budgets. And there dear reader you have 2 of the major constraints of any design job - time and money. Both of those key limitations are too often treated as unrealistically elastic by the arrogant designer.
There are usually 3 areas where constraints will be present: those that limit the design process itself - time, money, technology available etc; those that impinge on the the manufacture of the object - the aforementioned plus materials, tooling, cost per unit etc.;and; those that are determined by the lifetime operation of the object designed - typically all of the foregoing plus things like, throughput, speed, cost per use, ecological impact, durability, adaptability, aesthetics, fit to environment and any extreme conditions under which the object needs to operate. Without wishing to be exhaustive, and I am not convinced that I could be not matter how long I worked on this short article, I hope it is now clear that the constraints on a design will often outweigh the look and feel of the object designed by a very long stretch.