Elegance and The Art of Less

Designers often use blank space to convey visual power. The same principle of subtraction can lead to elegant solutions in other fields.

One recent New Year’s, I had one of those epiphanies in which a tiny shift in perspective shines an entirely new light on something—and sets the stage for a breakthrough.

At the time, I was working as an instructional designer for Toyota, struggling to identify and then teach the creative process by which the company had been able to implement more than a million inventive ideas per year, at all levels of the organization. The project was not going as well as I would have liked: There were too many moving parts and too many things to teach people to do. Then I read an essay in USA Today by business author Jim Collins. It was titled “Best New Year’s Resolution? A ‘Stop Doing’ List.”

In his essay, Collins told the story of how, in his early days at Hewlett-Packard, he returned to Stanford Business School for a visit, during which his favorite professor reproached him for a lack of discipline. The expert in creativity and innovation informed him that his hard-wired energy was riding herd over his mental clarity, enabling a busy yet unfocused life. Her words rang true. At the time, Collins was aggressively chasing his carefully set goals for the year, confident in his ability to accomplish them all His life was crowded with the commotion of being on the career fast track. Her comment made him pull up short and re-examine what he was doing. To help, she did what truly great teachers do: She gave him an assignment. She called it “20-10.”

Imagine that you’ve just inherited $20 million free and clear, but you only have 10 years to live. What would you do differently? Specifically, what would you stop doing?

The exercise did precisely what it was intended to do: It made Collins stop and think about what was truly meaningful, what mattered most to him. It was a turning point, for two reasons. First, he realized he’d been spending an enormous amount of energy on the wrong things. He woke up to the fact that he hated his job. So he promptly quit and headed back to Stanford to launch a new career in research, teaching, and writing. Second, the assignment became a constant reminder of just how important and precious his time is. He now starts each year by choosing what not to do, and each of his to-do lists always includes “stop doing” items.

Collins preaches what he practices, impressing upon his audiences that they absolutely must have a “stop doing” list to accompany their to-do lists. As a practical matter, he advises everyone to first give careful thought to prioritizing their goals and objectives, then to eliminate the bottom 20 percent of the list, forever.

What struck me most about his eloquent essay was its closing thought:

A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit—to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort—that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life.

I suddenly realized that I had been approaching my Toyota project in the wrong way. As is natural and intuitive, I had been looking at what to do, rather than what not to do. But as soon as I shifted my perspective, the vaunted Toyota Production System became a study of what wasn’t there, and of how and what to stop doing. The Lexus brand, which had by then represented America’s leading line of luxury cars, was suddenly a shining example of eliminating anything that lacked passion and perfection.

The Heart of Elegance

The singular thought that what isn’t can often be as or more powerful than what is presented me with a completely different view of the world. In fact, it offered an altogether unique reality—and a life-changing one at that. I embarked on the journey I’m still on, in search of solutions that derive maximum effect from minimum means, ideas that are elegant by virtue of their ability to achieve two conflicting goals at once: profound simplicity and surprising power.

It turns out that if you know where to look and what to look for, the “stop doing” strategy can be found at the heart of elegance in a wide range of fields— from the arts to athletics, from manufacturing to architecture, from science to media. Elegance is a widely sought-after quality, and it can take many forms. A few individuals, teams, and companies have become quite adept at exploiting the principle of subtraction to better sculpt their ideas, performances, and lives.

Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers search for theories that explain highly complex phenomena in stunningly simple ways. Artists and designers use white, or “negative,” space to convey visual power. Musicians and composers use pauses—silence—in the score to create dramatic tension. Dancers and elite athletes deliver their maximum performances by minimizing unnecessary exertion. Physicians draw on Occam’s razor principle—or diagnostic parsimony—to find the single cause of a patient’s myriad symptoms, shaving the analysis down from a sea of possibilities to the most likely explanation.

Still, elegance remains an elusive target, perhaps because subtraction requires thinking differently. When neuroscientists examine brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they notice that tasks involving subtracting numbers light up an entirely different part of the brain than those involving addition. Through stories that illustrate how others have applied the laws of subtraction, we can better understand the power of the principle.

Working Without Working

Here’s a thought: What if you can get better results at work, by working less?

According to a 2009 survey of more than 600 U.S. workers by the Society for Human Resource Management, 70 percent of employees work beyond their scheduled time—staying late, taking work home, working weekends—and over half cite “self-imposed pressure” as the reason. In certain industries, the numbers are more dramatic. Harvard Business School researchers Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter surveyed 1,000 people in professional service firms (management consultants, lawyers, investment bankers, etc.) and found that nearly half worked more than 65 hours per week and spent nearly 25 hours on their Blackberrys outside the office. Work is the top priority, with personal time a distant second.

“They believe an ‘always-on’ ethic is essential if they and their firms are to succeed in the global marketplace,” Perlow and Porter wrote in their groundbreaking four-year study, the results of which were published in the October 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Having worked with and for a number of such firms and professionals, I know that this is indeed the prevailing mindset. But is it true?

Perlow and Porter’s research seems to confirm just the opposite, that not working can yield better work. In the experiment, members of a dozen four- or five-member consulting teams at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) were required to take “predictable time off” every week, defined as one uninterrupted evening free after 6 p.m.—no work contact whatsoever, and no Blackberrys.

The downtime was awkward for many, nerve-racking for some, and a few fought the idea, fearful of poor performance ratings or more weekend work. The goal was to teach people that you can tune out completely for a time and still produce great results.

It worked. BCG’s internal surveys showed that within six months consultants were more satisfied with their jobs and work-life balance‚ and were more likely to stay with the firm, compared to those who weren’t part of the study. Also, BCG clients told Perlow and Porter that the teams turned out better work, in part due to “more open dialogue among team members,” and that “the improved communication also sparked new processes that enhanced the teams’ ability to work most efficiently and effectively.”

It worked so well that BCG is now rolling out the strategy throughout the firm.

Thinking Without Thinking

Most people know the stories about Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” upon suddenly discovering volume displacement while taking a bath and about Einstein realizing the theory of relativity in a daydream. But there are many others. Friedrich von Stradonitz discovered the round shape of the benzene ring after he dreamed that a snake bit its own tail. Philo Farnsworth was gazing at the even rows of a freshly plowed field when he got the idea for projecting moving images line by line, which led to his invention of the television. Car designer Irwin Liu sketched what became the shape of the first Toyota Prius after helping his child with an elementary-school science project in which they manipulated hard-boiled eggs. Shell Oil engineer Jaap Van Ballegooijen’s idea for a “snake drill” came as he watched his son turn his bendy straw upside down to better sip around the sides and bottom of his malt glass.

What’s interesting about these brilliant insights is that each came at an unexpected time and in random locations. They didn’t occur while anyone was actually working on a problem; they happened after an intense, prolonged struggle with one, followed by a break. Stopping work seems to have played a part.

Most creative types—artists, musicians, and writers—have also learned through experience that their process involves some seemingly unproductive spells, but that this downtime is actually important to their productivity. But until fairly recently, the how, when, and why of being kissed by the muse was something of myth and mystery, explained only by serendipity.

But science shows it’s not just coincidence. Neuroscientists examining how the human brain solves problems can confirm that experiencing a creative insight—that aha! moment—hinges on the ability to synthesize connections between disparate things. And a key factor in achieving that is time away from the problem. New studies show that creative revelations tend to occur when the mind is engaged in an activity unrelated to the issue at hand. Pressure is not conducive to recombining knowledge in new and different ways‚ which is a defining mark of creativity.

Neuroendocrinologist Ullrich Wagner has demonstrated that the ultimate break—sleep—promotes the likelihood of eureka! moments. He gave volunteers a Mensa-style logic problem to solve, one containing a hidden rule enabling the solution. The subjects were allowed to work on it for a while, then were told to take a break. Some took naps. Others didn’t. Upon returning to work on the problem‚ those who had napped found the hidden rule quicker than those who hadn’t. Wagner believes that information is consolidated by a process taking place in the hippocampus during sleep, enabling the brain to reboot itself, all the while forming new connections and associations. It is this process that is the foundation for creativity. The result is new insight and the aha! or eureka! moment.

Though no one yet knows the exact process, the important implication for all of us is this: Putting pressure on ourselves to try to make our brains do more—to work harder, more intensely, or more quickly—may only slow down our ability to arrive at new insights. In other words, if we’re looking to engineer a breakthrough, it may only come through a break, a “stop thinking” approach. It seems the brain needs the calm before its storm.

Ending Without Ending

On Sunday, June 10, 2007, nearly 12 million television viewers experienced the very same effect. David Chase, creator of the hit HBO series The Sopranos, used the subtraction principle to achieve what many critics have since hailed as the most innovative hour of TV in recent history. Fans waited with anticipation to find out the fate of mafia don Tony Soprano, the show’s main character and the anchor of its story arc. Would he or wouldn’t he get “whacked”? Debates raged for 22 months leading up to the finale’s airdate. But there would be no tidy resolution: During the show’s final seconds, everyone’s TV screen suddenly went black. Credits rolled a few seconds later, and The Sopranos series came to an end.

Viewers’ immediate reaction was: What just happened to my television signal? And it’s interesting that most people had the same reaction. Few saw the blank screen for what it was: the ending. Instead, they believed something had gone wrong, and that made them stop and think. What occurred over the next 48 hours or so is even more notable. The initial disappointment of being left hanging without a clear conclusion was quickly replaced by an unparalleled level of post-show scrutiny and a fresh appreciation for “the genius of David Chase.” This was spurred by Chase’s semi-cryptic public comment that, “Anybody who wants to watch it, it’s all there.”

Realizing that every frame was carefully crafted by Chase, who wrote and directed the finale, viewers re-examined scene after scene, noting both blatant and subtle visual clues, soundtrack hints, veiled dialogue, references to previous episodes, camera angles, color palettes, and lighting effects. Theory after theory popped up online and in the print media. The debate took on a life of its own. Viewers crafted their own endings, filling in the missing piece with the trail of code Chase had provided. To most fans, Tony Soprano’s fate became quite obvious, albeit only through a full retrospective. By not drawing a conclusion, Chase solved the wicked problem of how to avoid disappointing anyone—half wanted Tony Soprano to die, half wanted him to live—while tripling the number of viewers. It was a very effective no-ending ending.

An Age-Old Practice

While it remains rare and radical, the insight at the center of elegance isn’t new. Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu understood the power of what isn’t there when he wrote this verse more than 2,500 years ago:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub, It is the center hole that makes it useful. Shape clay into a vessel, It is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room, It is the holes which make it useful. Therefore profit comes from what is there, Usefulness from what is not there.

A final word: The subtractive “stop doing” strategy presents a completely different way of thinking about life, work, and the world. In an economic environment where time, money, and attention are fixed or decreasing, in which we all must achieve maximum effect with minimum means, having a good “stop doing” strategy may hold the key. At the very least, it will allow us to make more room for what really matters by eliminating what doesn’t.

Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance (2009), from which this essay was excerpted, and of The Elegant Solution (2006), which won the Shingo Research Prize for Excellence. A popular speaker, he lectures to corporations, governments, and universities around the world. He also works confidentially with creative teams and senior leaders of top Fortune-listed companies. He spent nearly a decade as a close adviser to Toyota, and he has written for national publications such as USA Today, Strategy+Business, and Quality Progress. He has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio. A graduate of the Wharton School of Business, he lives in Southern California.

The Meaning of Business


In light of the economic crisis, companies have a historic opportunity to transform the way they do business and provide customers with more value-rich, sustainable, and meaningful products and services. With this special series on “The Meaning of Business,” design mind invites business leaders from various industries and disciplines to explore new, innovative models of value creation.

A New Era of Meaning - An Introduction
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