Where Science Meets Muse

Want an Example of an Elegant Idea? Watch The Soaps

Posted by Plish on July 3, 2009

soap1 michaelplishka 2009 

When a design has it, it’s clear. 

There’s something special and wondrous about a solution that has it. 

It’s what we strive to achieve when problem solving.

It’s the hallmark of all great innovations…

It’s Elegance.

How does one define elegance? 

Matthew May, in his book, “In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing” lists four attributes of elegance.

1. Symmetry – It allows us to fill in gaps, to find and experience order, it provides a type of comfort as we naturally seek and prefer it.

2. Subtraction – Less is more.

3. Seduction – An alluring power to attract attention and mobilize the imagination.

4. Sustainability – A system or solution in which symmetry, seduction and subtraction are applied repeatably with success.  It also means that the solution itself has staying power. 

In general I like these definitions, so I began to look for an example of an elegant something that has these four traits, and I found it.

Soap Operas.

 Yes, you read correctly.  Soap Operas are elegant in their implementation and now, I see them as a thing of beauty.

So, why are soap operas elegant and what can we learn from them?  Let’s look at the attributes.

Symmetry – Since humans naturally look for, and prefer symmetry, in soap operas we have a tendency to look for balance (this also works hand-in-hand with seduction as we’ll see in a moment).  The writers of soap operas are brilliant in balancing justice/injustice, good/evil, what should be/what is, youth/elderly, life/death, what we don’t experience in life/what we do experience.

Subtraction – Soaps are masterful at using less to achieve more. Dialogues are short and to the point.    During the course of a show, the overwhelming majority of scenes last less than minute before moving to a new scene.  Interestingly, the majority of scenes contain two people and when a third appears often one of the other characters leaves.  It’s also not unusual for characters to get killed off or eliminated in some way from certain chunks of a show or season. It’s also not unusual for one actor to play multiple parts.

Seduction – Not even counting the obvious seduction from the sexual side, the tantalizing views of symmetry glimpsed through moments of asymmetry seduce our imaginations and make us speculate about how something will be resolved. Scenes cut out at just the right time so that we need to keep watching to find the resolution- we crave and want the symmetrical solution- we want justice for the characters- we want to be right in our predictions of where the show will take us.

Sustainability – The success of soap operas is staggering; in fact, if the soap opera isn’t an example of sustainability, I’m not sure what is.

Okay, so soaps are elegant, what does that mean? 

It means that elegant innovations/solutions don’t need more procedures or more features; they simply need to capture the imagination,  and appeal to human nature’s sense of symmetry, simplicity and beauty. 

Before any of this can be accomplished, however, we need to observe the world within and without.  It is in observation that the seeds of elegant solutions are born.


2 Responses to “Want an Example of an Elegant Idea? Watch The Soaps”

  1. […] This post was Twitted by j4ngis […]

  2. Plish said

    Thanks! @j4ngis also noted that: “I also think that “symmetry” is key when defining beauty. Beautiful people are “defined” symmetrically. Un-symmetric = not pretty.” It’s interesting that people on soaps are usually very symmetrical 😉

    Great blog by the way!

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