Bicycles, Elegance, and Redefining the Design Space

One of the physical characteristics of Elegance that I have identified in my research is that Elegance Redefines the Design Space. An Elegant Solution emerges and establishes the architecture of the system until another elegant solution comes along. In this case, I am talking about bicycles, with two same-size wheels on either end, and a crank system in the middle, connected to the rear wheel by a belt.

Elegance, as it reestablishes the baseline architecture, is different than disruptive innovation, where a different system may overtake an existing system, as would happen if unicycles (single-wheels) overtook bicycles (two-wheels). Remember Segway? or IT - did not happen. Remember, Elegance solutions are chasing after a specific problem. The idea to replace stagnating, less capable mini-computers with disruptive, quickly improving desktop computers may be an elegant solution in itself based on disruptive entrants, but in this case, I am talking about changing the architecture of a system based on arriving at an elegant solution to shortcomings and problems with an existing system.

Way back in the beginning of this post, you will notice that I say that the elegant solution "emerges". I could also say that it "reveals itself". Remember, Elegance, in the form of a sculpture or a telephone, reveals itself to the creator and to the user. It is not so much invented as it is discovered. This is why observation and generalist knowledge are so crucial to Elegance. Looking for a specific outcome, looking for a specific form, looking for a specific design, will almost assuredly not lead to Elegance. Working until the design, the form, the being, is revealed is what leads to Elegance. That method takes a lot of patience, observation, and thought, and patience.

The original bicycles had a big wheel in the front, and a small wheel in the back. Why? I don't know. That's just the way they were designed. Yes, I am sure there is a reason. I am sure it's in one of a million places on the web. But forget about it for a moment. Someone (again, whose name I do not know) eventually solved several problems, keeping all of the "machine complexity" of the bicycle, but making it a lot easier to use and more appealing to use. What do I mean? With two wheels the same size, wheels are easier and cheaper to produce. You only need one tire size. You only need one inner tube size. You only need one rim size, one spoke size, etc. Sitting closer to the ground, as well as more centered on the bicycle, improves balance and stability. If you fall, you are already closer to the ground so you do not have to fall as far! Plus, by sitting closer to the ground, the rider can mount and dismount the bicycle without any kind of external apparatus. This fact alone was probably instrumental in the adoption of the bicycle.

So, bicycles have retained this same basic architecture for a really long time now. Components have improved. Complexity has increased. There have been numerous improvements over the years: belts vs. chains, gearing, puncture resistant tires, water bottle holders, fancier materials (aluminum, composites, titanium), electric lights, electric motors, different kinds of seats, etc. But the architecture remains the same. When the new architecture was established marks the point of the elegant solution. The re-architecture marks the point when the Elegance revealed itself.

Back to basics. The beloved Public Bikes V7 in Black.

Back to basics. The beloved Public Bikes V7 in Black.