Our Blog Excerpts Savings Contact


Dorset House Publishing
High-Quality Books on Software Engineering and Management.  Since 1984.
dorsethouse.com > features
Features       Excerpts       Interviews


iDH Sign-Up

Get Our e-News
Delivered by FeedBurner

Hidden Beauty

by Tom DeMarco, Peter Hruschka, Tim Lister, Steve McMenamin, James Robertson, and Suzanne Robertson

Adapted from Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. See below for copyright notice.

Hidden Beauty: Some aspect of the project's work moves beyond adequate, beyond even elegant . . . and reaches for the sublime.

Some of us produce work that is intended for other eyes. If you're the body designer of a new car style, for example, then a large part of the success of your work depends on the extent to which it is appreciated by others. If what they see pleases them, you will know it and derive pleasure and esteem from their response. If you're good, this derived pleasure is a large part of your total remuneration package; depriving you of it would be like neglecting to pay your salary, practically a breach of your employment agreement.

Now imagine instead that you are designing the self-test mechanism for airbags on the same vehicle. Almost no one will see the result of your work or even be more than marginally aware that it is there at all. So, one might suppose that success or failure of this work -- and any attendant satisfaction that brings -- should depend entirely on whether or not it achieves its assigned functionality, with no provision at all for aesthetics.

What an error! Design is an inherently creative process in that it produces something where before there had been nothing at all. The act of creation can take you in many different directions, all perhaps functionally identical, but differing in ways that can only be termed aesthetic. Some designs are, quite simply, beautiful. Their beauty is not an added attribute, not a "decoration," but a side effect of achieving functionality in a way that is at once natural and yet surprising. This can be just as true of those parts of the whole that are largely or totally hidden as it is of those that are visible to all.

Since the inventor of Ethernet, Bob Metcalfe, is a friend, I thought I might look into the details of the Ethernet protocol to see how it was designed. I opened the spec to be informed, not charmed, but to my surprise, I found that the protocol was a thing of substantial beauty. It was spare where it needed to be spare, elegant in concept, and its recovery mechanism for lost packets was a simple derivative of the way the packets were originally transmitted. Its concept of collisions and the way it deals with them was unexpected, at least to me, but amazingly simple. Call me a weenie, but the Ethernet spec brought a lump to my throat.

-- TDM

There is an aesthetic element to all design. The question is, Is this aesthetic element your friend or your enemy? If you're a manager, particularly a younger manager, you might be worried that any aesthetic component of the designer's work could be a waste, little more than the gold-plating that we're all taught must be avoided. This aesthetics-neutral posture in a manager acts to deprive designers of appreciation for work that is excellent, and to refuse acknowledgment of any valuation beyond "adequate."

The opposite posture requires that you be capable and willing to look in detail at your people's designs, and be aware enough to see quality when it's there. Doing this for even the shortest time will quickly convince you that the gold-plating argument is a red herring; no design is made better in any way by piling on added features or glitz. Rather, what enhances a design's aesthetic is what is taken away. The best designs are typically spare and precisely functional, easy to test and difficult to mess up when changes are required. Moreover, they make you feel that there could be no better way to achieve the product's assigned functionality.

When their work is largely invisible, designers are enormously affected by a manager who pores into the details enough to appreciate design quality. When you delve deeply into one of your designer's work, you may be able to increase the universe of people able to appreciate a lovely piece of work, from one to two. In the eyes of that worker, you just may be transformed from an okay manager to "the boss that I would follow anywhere."

"Perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

-- Antoine de Saint-ExupŽry

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This excerpt from Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies [ISBN: 978-0-932633-67-5] appears by permission of Dorset House Publishing. Copyright ©2008 by Tom DeMarco, Peter Hruschka, Tim Lister, Steve McMenamin, James Robertson, and Suzanne Robertson. All rights reserved. See http://www.dorsethouse.com/books/ajtz.html. The material contained in this file may be shared for noncommercial purposes only, nonexclusively, provided that this Copyright Notice always appears with it. This material may not be combined with advertisements, online or in print, without explicit permission from Dorset House Publishing. For copies of the printed book or for permissions, contact Dorset House Publishing, 1-800-342-6657, 212-620-4053, http://www.dorsethouse.com, info@dorsethouse.com, New: 3143 Broadway, Suite 2B, New York, NY 10027 USA. Additional rights limitations apply, as presented in the Legal Disclaimer posted at http://www.dorsethouse.com/legal.html.
New: 3143 Broadway, Suite 2B    New York, New York 10027    USA
1-800-DH-BOOKS or 212-620-4053, fax 212-727-1044
Copyright © 1996-2008 by Dorset House Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved.
Home | Blog | Savings | Stores | Features | Titles | Authors | Subjects | Orders | About | Contact | Legal