Semantics: Elegance vs Simplicity

I am curious what your thoughts are on the idea of elegance versus simplicity.

Einstein once said (I believe I am paraphrasing): “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler”

The idea of simplicity has always left me hanging as it is too loose in its definition. I was talking to a client this morning and it dawned on me that what my clients typically want is elegance, not simplicity.

Elegance, to me, carries more value than the word simplicity. Selling simplicity to a prospective client carries with it the idea that it should be less expensive.

I ALWAYS get a sideways glance when I say that “simple is hard”. Creating a simple product typically costs more to develop.

I’d argue, that creating an elegant solution, is more often what people want as opposed to simplicity.

Love to hear your thoughts.

I completely agree. I notice that very difference when I talk.

A basic screwdriver is a simple design: chunk of plastic that is roughly ergonomic to be twisted in the hand a rod of chromed steel stuck in one end.

Elegance adds more to the product. Like this hammer:

Except for the ugly graphics of course hehe.

I’ve recently resolved to design more minimally/simply. When I design, I draw too much and focus on the aesthetic qualities of the linework/drawing, and I never really visualized what it would look like in 3d with all these unnecessary lines and sweeps.

I think I’d agree with 914’s assessment. It just happens that a lot of the times, the most elegant solution is the simplest. Depends on whether you’re talking about the design, or just aesthetics.

I think Simplicity with grace is Elegance.

I think Simplicity without grace is Engineering.

Since were talking Semantics, I think we need to distinguish between simplicity and simplistic. Simple is often elegant, but simplistic lacks the elegance we find so satisfying in products.

One current way to discover the meaning of a word in the context of popular culture, the google image search. With screen shots below to save the time of clicking on the links.

as contrasted with:


Elegance is feminine, grace. An elegant solution is on handled with grace but with an added flourish. Elegance implies luxury, luxury implies cost, margin, value, all of which customers come to designers to add. Likely they want a solution that adds value.

Simplicity is the basic elements stripped of flourishes. Not so much that “simple is hard”, simple with added value is hard.

Elegance vs Simplicity… two different design approachs …with reference to the form factor

Simple design can be considered as graphical forms
something which is very basic in geometry…
They merge in the scenario…they don’t disturb or stand out much during their passive use.
very subtle…sober

Elegance design can be considered as that comes from nature (inspiration)
once placed in the scenario they carry their own style & story…
they are like a sculpture…they have something to offer…during their passive use
flow of lines, sometimes with abrupt junctions…natural inspiration

One can use them together… :sunglasses:

Even simplicity & elegance can be seen in… the functionality & experience of the product.


I am not sure I agree with you here. Elegance is different than elegant. Remember, we’re talking semantics here. Context is definitely important.

An example:

Simple - Pushing the cork of a wine bottle into the bottle

Elegant - A corkscrew

Both are “simple”. I believe elegant can be simple, but not the other way around.

The issue for me is that I run into clients wanting a simple product. To take it a step further, they want an Apple-like product. The problem being is that the term simple can carry with it the illusion of “easy”. Oh, it is simple, so it must be easy to do.

So, I constantly find that I am having to correct people with the old adage, “Simple is actually hard to do”.

Take the idea one step further (possibly too far):

A simple woman is easy.
An elegant woman is not.


You might be more at the core of what I am trying to get at here.

Simplistic vs Simple…need to ponder that for a bit.

I definitely agree that there is a dichotomy of how ‘simplicity’ is defined between a designer and a non-designer. When I hear the word simplicity, the first few things that come to mind are Naoto Fukasawa, stripped to the essentials, and minimalism. Semantically, I feel that the word ‘minimal’ better represents the modern aesthetic of “less is more.”

to really muck it up, now distinguish all that from “Minimal”

I’d say your corkscrew example might not be simple, because it assumes the user has enough strength to push the cork in… it is as minimal as you can get though… or maybe that is “reductive”

Simple can be elegant, but elegant can’t be simple. Simple can be genius (think mechanism on a Flip Camcorder), but simple can also be stupid (think George Bush). Elegance is all about the execution. Elegance is the visible record of the thought you put into something.

As for minimal, I’d put it somewhere in the vacinity of simple. They’re both about reduction, but you still have to say something.

“All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.”
-Winston Churchill

I would agree that we need to differentiate between elegant and elegance for the point of this discussion.

I would posit that many of the products, solution, experiences, etc. that we appreciate are
simple in terms of the what,
elegant in terms of the how.

Where simple implies an ease of understanding elegant implies grace.

simple vs simplistic and more

Interesting discussion.I think that it has to be abit of both, good design is both simple and elegant. When it is exactly what it needs to be, it’ll be elegant most of the time. Apple comes to my mind,or early Braun designs by Dieter Rams they are very simple, minimalistic and yet again elegant. And they are considered the best designed products on the market.

Well there is elegant in terms of the solution, the hammer that becomes the toolbox handle, the block of aluminum that is milled to become a laptop chassis:
and then there is elegant in terms of a level attention to the snap of a line, the curve of a 1948 Jaguar XK120
Neither of these needs to be simple really. I personally rarely use the term simple because I think it implies base, or not really thought through. I think minimal or reductive implies a high degree of thoughtfulness, refinement, intention, and concept.

Elegance is deeper than simplicity. Elegance is apparent simplicity, but actual complexity. The “elegant” used to describe good mathematical solutions comes to mind. as does Bruce Les’s method of fighting- maximum impact with the least exertion. Simplicity is simply lack of complexity. Elegant implies the application of Ockhams Razor to make something that is inherently complex easy to understand and use… So I agree with you- that we are discussing simplistic vs Elegant. Simplistic was following the Transparent plastics trend just because Apple did it. Simple solutions might be to put square housings around electronics and not understanding the interplay between the inside and the outside. Elegant solutions only look simple to the untrained eye. They have depth and as ip_wirelessly mentioned earlier, are not easy.

I am not sure that there is a context to any of these. Where that elegance is applied might reflect our training. MBAs might want to apply Ockhams Razor to the pricing structure, engineers might want to apply it to the assembly and manufacturing process. ID tends to want to apply it to the user and the user experience, which is the elegance that matters to the end-user.

I find the toolbox concept illustrated to be the contrary of simple or elegant. The solution of using the hammer as a handle is simply a clever play on the elements.

Blow molded tool box variety sets are not for use in the real world, no one is going to show up at a construction site with his hammer, two pliers and two screwdrivers in a molded plastic box with no space for anything additional. Blow molded box sets like these, are designed as packaging for selling sets of tools at department stores. They increase the storage/shipping volume of the parts by a factor of four or five. They are made for neatly storing tools in house of people who occasionally require them. What is the usage for the included hammer, is it a mason’s hammer?

In the concept toolbox there seems to be little actual space under the handle for the fingers, as well meeting up with a set of hard blowmolded edges right where the second knuckles are. The top extensions only serve to cover the head of the flat laid hammer, and add bulk to the design and run counter to the sleekness of the topline all other symmetrically handled cases. The outside finish is plain, not simple. The selling presentation will be in a shrink wrapped plastic sleeve with a color printed label showing the contents.

A long way of saying I don’t like it.

In sporting goods, we have an additional concept related to the essence of an objects function. Core. Appealing to the basic interests of the function and the most dedicated users. Typically without embellishments and flourishes. Core values, core design, hardcore. Equipment that can be used within an audience of your immediate peers without derision, generally this is, the simpler the better. Perhaps it is my own bias, but the core principle plays a huge role in design simplification and arriving at elegant solutions.

Simple, Simplistic, Core, Elegant, Elegance, Context…

I track it back to when I started moving into more of a management role. The value of communication increases significantly. The importance of semantics. The ability to strip out the emotion and apply language to the situation in order to convince management and peers of a direction that is different from the norm.

I have become more and more interested in this as I have moved into running a business. Business development…trying to convince someone your company is better than someone else’s. Stripping out the real reason the prospective client wants to work with you. Is their deadline really as tight as it is? Are they just looking for a lowest bidder? Do they see value in the design process?

Being able to communicate clearly is definitely a skill that a Designer needs to hone. But it goes the other way also. Can you distill the true meaning from others as to what they want. When the client says they want simple, they really want elegant. When they say they want the next Apple product, when they really want you to knock off the iPod for the lowest bid.


a mentor once told me that being a leader means saying fewer things, but in more ways and more often. What I think he really meant by that is to have a strong personal definition of what you are trying to do and to get that set of ideas into as many people as possible… or as Craig Robinson would say “Be about it”


Simplicity seems to be overall minimization of elements. In digital modeling terms, it might be the “low-polygon-count” of an object.

Minimalism (or at least MANY minimalist objects) is typically a strategy that prioritizes a well proportioned low-polygon-count strategy to achieve an elegance of form. It is often (possibly rightly) ridiculed when that elegance of form is divorced from elegance of use. The construction of minimalist objects can be extremely complex (the “simple is hard” adage).

Overall elegance seems to me more related to having realized ALL considerations in exactly the right way, and furthermore that all of these criteria are met in a way that is harmonious. That might mean that it has the right amount of functionality, intuitive use, aesthetic consideration, simple construction, sound material choices. A macbook, for example, is more elegant than a typical apple mouse (as the mouse is clumsy in its right-click functionality). The mouse is simple and minimal whereas the macbook is fairly elegant.

Another shorthand I think about is that Elegance is how simple a design solution is relative to its commodity and quality.

How do you define “simplicity” in design? In terms of construction? geometry? How all of the elements read?

Maybe if people post their all-time favorite most elegant / simple designed objects as a way to talk about what makes those objects elegant / simple?