Elegant solutions and human behaviour

You never know when inspiration is coming your way, till it hits you.

I was cooking while a colleague of mine was watching Numbers, a quiet old TV Show (it started in 2005). “What’s that?” I asked. “The guy solves crime cases using math and algorithms” she said.

I stopped for a second. It definitely sounded like the type of nerd stuff that I could totally fall in love with.

I came closer to the laptop to check it out, just in time to hear one of the characters come up with a groundbreaking description of one of the most frustrating issues I experience working in Social Good with a pragmatic and design-driven mindset:

“Charles, you are a mathematician, you’re always looking for the elegant solution.
Human behaviour is rarely, if ever, elegant. The universe is full of these odd bumps and twists. You know, perhaps you need to make your equation less elegant, more complicated; less precise, more descriptive. It’s not going to be as pretty, but it might work a little bit better.
Charlie, when you’re working on human problems, there’s going to be pain and disappointment. You gotta ask yourself, is it worth it?


Switch “mathematician” with “designer” and we’re all set.

As a Fine Arts student and a creative, I know the power of beauty. I live by it. Not the superficial beauty — the more pure and profound one, made of sense of proportion, vibrance, elegance.

I know its ability to inspire, to move, to cut your breath, to make you see things you couldn’t imagine before, to touch your very centre and lit it up, to give form to ideas. Beauty, in all its forms, has always moved humanity, creating the space and time to honour and celebrate what ultimately inspire and elevate our spirit. It’s the hardest thing to describe, yet the one we try to express the most.

But, as Plato would put it, beauty is a characteristics of forms. And forms are the imperfect result of pure ideas manifesting into reality.

That Number’s quote resonates so much because I often find myself stuck with trying to make a solution be beautiful (sometimes even confusing beautiful with perfect), instead of fully focusing on delivering a solution that is, quoting Numbers again, “not going to be as pretty, but (that) might work a little bit better”.

I find important to be moved by beauty, to follow our inner call to shape a better reality around us, by making things that elevate us and improve our lives. But it has to be balanced by effectiveness.

But to make this work, we have to solve the fact that often people see “beautiful” as opposite to “ethical” or “right“.

Somehow, we have become stuck with the idea that “good” must be “humble“, “poor“, ever “rough“. Maybe it’s a projection of the Catholic idea of humility? Let’s think about any communication content on Social Good: whenever it’s “too beautiful” or “too perfect”, there’s always someone turning up his nose.

I think the time has come to solve this dispute.

If we want solutions to work well, of course we should focus on making them be effective… first.

But if we want solutions that engage others, that inspire to act differently,that trigger subtle but powerful educational mechanisms, that reshape unhealthy behaviours — then beauty and elegance must be part of the equation, together with effectiveness.

We naturally reject anything that make us feel uncomfortable, even when they are the best for us. And we love things that make us feel comfortable, even if we know they are bad for us.

What I’d love to see more and more in Social Good is solutions that keep the eye on being effective and impactful, but that also work as triggers to change things on a much wider and much deeper level.

Solutions that are not just right and effective, but also inspiring.

As Buckminster Fuller perfectly stated:

When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

Originally published at megpag.com on January 26, 2016.