2017 Update: It took me 7 years to realize I was one tick away from a great acronym for this principle. Instead of "Essence and Artifact" (EAA - awkward!), I realized the inherent tension between essence and artifact is better expressed as Essence VERSUS Artifact, or EVA. Now, back to what I wrote about it in 2011. -SBD
I’m a designer and builder, and I highly value well-designed things. I both enjoy well-designed things made by other people, and I enjoy making well-designed things myself. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be well-designed. There are many ways to measure the quality of design including aesthetics, form, function, and cost, but there is one design principle I find to be most important. I call it: Essence and Artifact.
What is “Essence and Artifact”?
There are two kinds of constraints on design. The universe we live in forces physical and logical constraints on what is possible. These essential constraints are inviolate. We can't change the charge of an electron anymore than we can change the value of π. These constrains define an upper bound on what is possible when designing a solution to a problem. This upper bound is what I call the “essential solution” to a problem. It is often unachievable in practice, but it is the goal any designer strives for and the benchmark by which all solutions are measured.
In addition to the essential constraints of the universe, we are also constrained by historical artifacts. Manufacturing may settle on standards, and though that standard can be easily rewritten, retooling the infrastructure based on that standard may become an economic impossibility. Similarly, virtual architectures, such as the Intel x86 instruction set, are so economically entrenched by all the software that depends on them, that they can't be practically changed. In addition to constraining our options, artifacts constrain our thinking.
The Essence and Artifact Design Principle
Understand which constraints are essential and which are artificial. Once the artifacts have been identified, discard as many of them as possible the design to approach the essential solutions for the problem.
Keep in mind that every actual thing in existence is an Artifact and is in some way non-essential. However, if our designs approach the upper bound of the essential solution then by definition there is little room to improve upon them. In other words, essential solutions are also timeless, and I think “timeless” is an excellent measure of good design.
In future posts I hope to dive deeper into some of the implications of E&A. Below are a few of the key attributes of each:
· Powerful (Maximally applicable)
· Narrowly Focused or Unfocused