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I'm sure you've either heard, read, or used "elegant" to refer to a good design, but does it have a specific meaning other than "great?"

Is there a rubric you'd use to judge an interaction or design to be "elegant?" Even a rough one?

Or is this just a fairly meaningless buzz word that I should just ignore?

For context: I'm really not trying to troll or cause a debate. In focusing on how and where I improve my skills, I've noticed this adjective come up a lot. However, I've yet to understand what it means enough to judge whether or not I'm making progress in creating these "elegant designs" that seem to be a requirement for most UX jobs.

  • I'm very interested in this question and there are some good answers. However, could someone cite a website which they feel demonstrates these qualities. For example, to use a few staples....is facebook elegant? Is twitter elegant? Both are packed with functionality but in my opinion FB seems to me to be bloated. FB 2004, although much more primitive was (relative to the time) more elegant. – GhostRider Aug 26 '14 at 14:22
  • IMHO, Facebook is an excellent example of the antithesis of "elegant." – DocSalvager Aug 30 '14 at 8:16
  • I usually see the term in reference to code, e.g. "elegant syntax". Clunky code and complex loops have been simplified making them easier to read. Or a small bit of code does a lot of heavy lifting. I think elegant language and elegant design does the same thing: it communicates clearly and powerfully with fewer words/images/bytes. – Phil Tune Sep 2 '14 at 14:17
  • It can refer to many things. There's no real definition for it. – William Edwards Sep 2 '14 at 15:54
  • Coming back around to my own question after a little time, I think one aspect of "elegant" design is that it feels "undesigned" (i.e. so natural and logical that, of course, that's how it should look/work). – conan Oct 8 '14 at 15:50

10 Answers 10

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To me, elegance is the combination of three features: Simplicity, coherence, and powerfulness. This can be applied to a design concept, aesthetic appearance, interaction design, and underlying code.

  • Simplicity. Simplicity means few elements. It could be a concept that’s easy to explain in a few words, a visual design with few colors, lines, and shapes, an interaction design that takes few clicks, or code with few lines

  • Coherence. Coherence means internal consistency. A coherent concept is not logically self-contradictory. A coherent visual design presents a consistent style not a hodge-podge of clip art. A coherent interaction design responds in the same way to the same user behaviors throughout (e.g., if you can drag and drop meetings in a calendar, you can also drag and drop meeting attendees). Coherent code handles all edge cases in the main a flow of logic, rather than having a bag hung on the side.

  • Powerfulness. Powerful means saying or doing a lot. A powerful concept is one that explains a lot or has a lot of applications. A powerful visual design communicates broadly and deeply about the subject –really gives the viewer a strong feeling of what it’s about. A powerful interaction design is one feature or capability that solves multiple user problems (e.g., cut/copy and paste, which allows moving, associating, re-associating, duplicating, converting, and exporting). Powerful code produces very useful output for multiple purposes.

An elegant UX is desirable because it implies the user gets a lot for a little effort. Simple and coherent means the user doesn’t have to work hard to “get it” (whether “it” is how to use the product or the aesthetic message the product is representing). Powerful means that once the user gets it, they get a lot out of it (a product good for many practical uses, or deep significant meaning).

  • I wish I could +1 once for the explanation of elegance, and then +1 again for the paragraph about the UX advantages of an elegant design. – Racheet Sep 2 '14 at 14:47
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It is definitely subjective to a certain extent and perhaps the best way to understand it's intent is to ask for an example whenever someone mentions an elegant design. However, I think one can by default assume that elegant has the same connotations online as it does offline; as clean, minimal, and beautiful as possible.

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Elegant design is the visual equivalent of concise writing/speaking, in my mind.

The aim is to convey as much as you can using as little as possible. Complete. Simplicity.

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For me, elegant design has the following qualities:

  1. It accomplishes its purpose in the simplest way possible.
  2. It's easy to use and doesn't cause frustration.
  3. It's aesthetically pleasing.
  4. It elicits the desired emotions.
  5. It doesn't do anything unnecessary.
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It is subjective word... I think that people are using it when they want to say something is fine.

What's fine?

That's also a good question. Fine is highest of highest grade without exaggerating but keeping the real value of what is there...

PS: I am writing this post while drinking a glass of fine wine or maybe not...

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The accepted answer simply lists three good adjectives about design (mind you the person describes them well, and they are important things to consider in your work).

The real answer is that they don't know what they mean when they say elegant. They probably listed it next to other adjectives (which is what they are actually looking for), or they just like using buzz words. It's essentially a meaningless word. It means different things to different people, and people will use their favorite and least favorite designs as the example for "elegant". Stick to the other words being used, and focus on the generally good design practices laid out in the accepted answer, and most importantly know when to NOT do each of them.

  • When is being minimalist (less is more) going to hurt you because the task you're designing for isn't actually simple?
  • When is it not possible to box complex functionalities into internally consistent, but not actually helpful, buckets?
  • When is being "too powerful" (feature creep or information overload), actually detrimental?
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From my own experience, an "elegant" design is a design that not only looks visually pleasing, but also has a very good user experience.

Personally, I don't think a design is elegant enough without the user in mind. If a site isn't usable, then how can it be considered successful?

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In my opinion, in an 'elegant' design both the looks and interactions are visually pleasing, as is the user experience. Also, for it to be elegant, it should be clean, organised, feel spacious and shouldn't use too many colors/fonts.

It should just feel like it's complete.

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Elegant should mean slick design, polished to be simple and beautiful in one time.

But as every word, that is connected to people perception, it is too subjective and personal, so it can mean different things for different clients and customers. So you just need to ask more questions, to understand, what does the word "elegant" mean in each specific case =)

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I think a missing piece in the answers so far is constraint. Elegance is impossible without constraints. UX is all about designing a UI that accomplishes the desired functionality while meeting or beating all the constraints (effective use of screen real estate, minimizing mouse clicks, reducing the need for training or help files, etc.).

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