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In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing

3.8  ·  Rating Details ·  438 Ratings  ·  61 Reviews
What made the Sopranos finale one of the most-talked-about events in television history?

Why is sudoku so addictive and the iPhone so irresistible?

What do Jackson Pollock and Lance Armstrong have in common with theoretical physicists and Buddhist monks?


In this thought-provoking exploration of why certain events, products, and people capture our attention and imagin
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published May 19th 2009 by Crown Business (first published 2009)
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(showing 1-30)
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A book about elegance should be elegant, right? I mostly just found this book to be very tidy. I haven't read any Malcolm Gladwell, but this author seems to be camping under similar stars. I read it in one sitting and liked it. My brain feels, if not reformatted, then carefully adjusted, like I went to the brain chiropractor.

He defines elegance as a quality that falls under four annoyingly alliterative words: symmetry, seduction, subtraction & sustainability. For the rest of the book, pulls
Oct 12, 2009 Emily rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Interesting book on why we need elegance and how to achieve it. Elegance is defined as "cleverly apt and simple" and is achieved through symmetry, seduction, subtraction, and sustainability. I liked the big idea of the book and enjoyed the many examples, but did not always see the connection between the two.

"The power of elegance is achieved when the maximum impact is exacted with the minimum input." (need to work on my wordiness)

Why we need elegance: "Because by nature we tend to add when we s
Chris Dietzel
Jul 22, 2015 Chris Dietzel rated it really liked it
Anyone who has enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking will love May's book on what makes great ideas so great. I lost track of all the fascinating things I learned while reading this, from street design to abstract painting to advertising campaigns.
Tim Chang
Dec 15, 2012 Tim Chang rated it really liked it
very thought-provoking ideas and insights -- applicable to business model, app, interface, or even artistic design!

Here were my key takeaways:
Key elements of Elegance: Symmetrical, Seductive, Subtractive, Sustainable

- have a Stop-doing List as well as to-do list: eliminate bottom 20% of to-do list forever.
- great art is also composed of what is not in final piece...
- familiarity with a principle means not having to know all of its applications
- difference between East and Western mindset: seeing
May 11, 2009 Brian rated it it was amazing
I loved “In Pursuit Of Elegance” by Matthew E. May. This book will provide a basis for a whole new kind of thinking. I can not think of an audience that would not benefit from reading this book because it can apply to business, art, home-life, and many other ventures.

One thing I found brilliant about the book is that it doesn’t offer specific steps to follow. This is not a “go and do” kind of book. What is NOT in the book is what makes this powerful (and elegant). May provides many case examples
Oct 28, 2009 Erica rated it it was amazing
This is a book -- like Omnivore's Dilemma -- that really makes me rethink and change the way I see things. May gives examples of elegance, and the power of it, and its roots in simplicity -- how leaving something out, or simplifying something and eliminating the endless barrage of information, can make it easier to communicate and function in the world. He focuses on four concepts: symmetry, seduction, subtraction and sustainability.

He makes a compelling argument about a busy traffic circle in t
Maureen Lang
Jul 24, 2010 Maureen Lang rated it really liked it
I checked out the audio form of this book from the library quite by chance, and was pleasantly surprised by the premise and breadth of material for his chosen topic. He talks about four key elements of elegance: seduction (appealing to the senses), subtraction (keeping to the minimum but still achieving effectiveness), symmetry (necessary for all beauty) and sustainability. I slipped it in on a recent long drive thinking I would just listen to "some of it" but it kept my interest arrested all th ...more
Sep 29, 2009 Patrick rated it it was amazing
“In Pursuit of Elegance is a fascinating intellectual romp that will change the way you look at your surroundings. As he takes readers from Jackson Pollock paintings to Dutch intersections to the secret menu at In-N-Out Burger, Matt May reveals the hidden elements beneath genuine innovation. This book is surprising, compelling, and, yes, extremely elegant.”
—Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole New Mind and The Adventures of Johnny Bunko
Justin Douglas
Nov 29, 2010 Justin Douglas rated it it was amazing
For those who already knew that less is more, but couldn't pinpoint exactly why. Anecdotes on a variety of topics from traffic to video rentals show how Daoist principles such as "wu-wei" (doing by non-doing) can be applied (or non-applied) to modern life. A fascinating Gladwell-esque companion to the Dao De Jing, Chuang Tzu, Book of Tea, Science of Happiness, etc.
Alex Kenjeev
Mar 29, 2013 Alex Kenjeev rated it liked it
A book about elegance - mostly in a business context.

Matthew May begins by giving lots of examples of elegant ideas, that is, ideas that are simple, symmetric and powerful - and that in most cases reduce complexity rather than increasing it. Factories in the US, Europe and Japan that went from money-losing to money-making by cutting out bureaucracy and radically reducing the number of job titles. Apple's relentless removal of 'indispensable' features, like keypads on the iPhone, and its surprisi
Jun 12, 2009 Jeff rated it it was ok
A key theme in the book is that often elegance comes from what you take out rather than keep adding on.

Some interesting thoughts:

1.) What's a free way that an old VHS video store could guarantee that all tapes are rewound? (hint: "be kind, please rewind" stickers and incentive programs didn't work.. additionally tape rewinding machines aren't free)

2.) Imagine letters are made up of sticks. What's the fewest number of sticks you need to move to make this Roman numeral equation true: "XI + I = X"
Uwe Hook
Aug 13, 2012 Uwe Hook rated it really liked it
This is not a step by step book to creating elegant solutions or products. Rather, it presents a compelling argument on why subtraction can lead to elegance. Why doing nothing is so difficult for humans and organizations but is many times the right thing "to do". Why in-action or restraining your brain from wanting to add can lead to breakthroughs in elegant design.

The author works hard to give examples from a wide range of disciplines. Because of this broad stroke of the brush, the only complai
Jun 01, 2009 Michelle rated it really liked it
Shelves: science-issues
This was wide-ranging and very interesting, although I think it's possible that May has given some odd significance to events. For example, his use of the example of what happens at busy intersections if traffic signals and signs are eliminated, to me shows not "symmetry" but libertarianism. :-) But still, how can you not love a book that manages to tie together neuroscience, cycling, Jackson Pollock, traffic patterns, architecture, the iPhone, fractals and the Sopranos? Fun and interesting view ...more
May 15, 2012 Espen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A nice (I suppose you could say elegant) little book about why less often is more. Anecdotal, well-written, with at least some examples I found very interesting (the "shared space", rule-free concept of traffic regulation exemplified in the Laweiplein crossing - see it on Youtube - for example, as well as the Nigerian clay pot vegetable coolers,) some I found rather repetitious (the iPhone's elegant simplicity) and others done better elsewhere (Christopher Alexander's pattern language approach t ...more
Blair Conrad
Aug 30, 2009 Blair Conrad rated it liked it
Shelves: library, nonfiction
A little disappointing. Not a bad read, and many of the anecdotes were interesting, but that's as far as it goes. I didn't find that there was a unifying theme threading between the stories - many of the ideas didn't seem to have obvious elegance or even anything missing. For example, the factory without an HR department - I guess it's missing an HR department, but it's not missing the HR role - they just moved it around. It's perhaps not a bad idea, but I think the story glossed over was was pr ...more
Jan Brooks
Apr 02, 2012 Jan Brooks rated it really liked it
From the book, Prologue:
"But why, you might still be wondering, is this so important?...Because we need some way to consistently replace value-destroying complexity with value-creating simplicity. Because we need to know how to make room for more of what matters by eliminating what doesn't." p.12

An exploration of why some plans, actions, etc capture our attention and become innovation--breakthroughs if you will.
4 key elements--
seduction, subtraction, symmetry, and sustainability.

Something I
Sep 12, 2010 Ninakix rated it really liked it
I found the beginning of this book a little painful to read, even though the stories and examples told were interesting. That's because the author talks about the "three S's" of elegance: symmetry, seduction, subtraction. This felt to me like a forced attempt to work what he'd seen into an easy to remember, packable concept. Once you move on from this forced concept, the book becomes more interesting. He begins to discuss how you think to get toward an "elegant" concept. And while not super in-d ...more
Jan 31, 2011 xdroot rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
the book is thought-provoking but seems quite light compared to the other business books i've read. so is it because there's not much to say or because he applies the principles of seduction and subtraction and so forces one to develop the ideas for oneself? while the ideas resonate, it would have been handy if he could have described some tools to apply these principles. maybe in the second book?
Steve Bradshaw
Nov 16, 2013 Steve Bradshaw rated it it was ok
Loved the central idea of the book but struggled to get past the author.

I would still recommend it though as it lead me to think a lot about elegant design and getting rid of complexity when creating anything new.

Some great case-studies on elegant design, including on Sodoku, the iphone, sign-less traffic systems and economized house design. I just wished the author would have stayed on each topic for longer and jumped around a bit less...
Oct 19, 2013 Kristine rated it really liked it
What an interesting book! What makes something elegant? I enjoyed the illustrations of elegant solutions. From how Lance Armstrong trained to Apple's products. Interesting to learn about Japanese Car makers and organizations effectively rehabilitating drug addicts. I want to remember these principles. I may need to re-read this periodically.
Eric Smith
Jul 22, 2011 Eric Smith rated it it was ok
This book purports to show four important ways to think about new product development via a quest for elegance. What you leave out is more important than what you include, that's one of the core ideas. This is a good book, thought provoking, but it is not a great book as the level of simplification means that the ""rules"" are hard to apply to real world designs.
Sep 12, 2009 Kevin rated it it was amazing
May discusses the concept of elegance by using 4 broad components: symmetry, seduction, substitution, & sustainability. I was especially struck by his chapter on sustainability and his discussion on observation and how human beings are wired to think and do quickly, but many flashes of insight only occur after we observe and think, and ask "Why."
Terence J
Apr 01, 2013 Terence J rated it it was amazing
Most definitely changed the way I approach design! As an engineer I used to think more is always better. After reading this book, I know and fully understand this is not always the case. In my designs, whether I am creating a Kit for education or curriculum I now apply the priniciples outlined in the book. Terence - and
Ahn Mur
Sep 29, 2014 Ahn Mur rated it liked it
Shelves: optimization
The examples were cliché (how many more times do I have to read about the brilliance of Apple products?).
For a work on elegance, it was not so elegant itself.
That being said, I still enjoyed it. It touched on many topics that I enjoy, and it was easy to read. I did particularly like its examination of the rewinding policy in video rentals.
Juan Manuel Perez Pelayo
May addressed another imperative interrogative that I dwell upon daily when I design garments. How to make things elegant and timeless. His tone is a little bit cocky and dismissive towards the reader which makes the book hard to get through, yet he gives very clear examples on how to address this idea of subtle elegance that is so hard to attain. Strongly recommended for Sudoku lovers.
Aug 17, 2009 Cher rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction
Hmmm...This book seemed really Master of the Obvious...Not all of the examples matched the concept of elegance...I guess my only real complaint was that the entire book could have been written in one chapter...And I already knew about the concept of elegance & have thought about it so I wasn't particularly illuminating.
Apr 22, 2015 P.a.jayaprakash rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Wow!!! what a book on creativity. The four principle are outstanding. Anyone have little creative, the experience would have coincides with these principle. Amazing and very innovative. Very precise and loved the fact, well presented and not repeated. Thanks to the author for his effort for producing a wonderful book.
Phil Simon
Mar 27, 2011 Phil Simon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: business
I read quite a bit and many books suffer from "me too" complexes. Not this one. An amazing read with applications to so many areas of life. May proves that, in fact, less may be more. Strongly recommended.
Graeme Roberts
Nov 07, 2010 Graeme Roberts rated it it was amazing
I love this book!

I have always valued elegance very highly but would have been hard-put to define it well. I can now do that and actively seek it in my work, because I understand that symmetry, sustainability, subtraction, and seduction are its defining characteristics.
Nov 23, 2011 Jillian rated it it was ok
If you're looking for a Tipping Point-like book, this isn't it. There are a few interesting facts intermingled with common sense advice like, "don't over-think it" and "elegance is simple." Nothing too ground-breaking.
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