Just One Thing
design essay
Pai Mei courtsey of wikia

When I was in elementary school, I apprenticed with a bonsai master—I’ll call him Pai Mei. The master resembled one of the Five Elders of Shaolin; picture Pai Mei from Kill Bill. He died a few years ago, but his memory has always stayed with me. One of Pai Mei’s eccentricities was the ability to turn a phrase. He used the skill to great effect while teaching his students. This essay is about what I learned from one of his most memorable credos—Just One Thing.

My apprenticeship started by studying bonsai compositions. Pai Mei would select several bonsai specimens and ask me to abstract away what made each exemplar successful. When I would pause between threads of thought, Pai Mei would inject his own commentary about my ideas in the form of nonsensical turns of phrase. He would say things like, “Killing an ox is a poor attempt at straightening its horns.” I realized the intention was to teach me bonsai, but I struggled to understand his phrases.

Goshin on display at the United States National Arboretum

One of the first compositions that I studied with Pai Mei was Goshin, the master work of John Naka, and probably the most recognized bonsai in the world. I was struck by its unusual use of jin, the dead wood prominent in the upper canopy. I liked the effect that the artistic device elicited so much, the first chance that I got, I started adding jin to all of my own compositions. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

With each new specimen I studied, I learned new artistic devices and immediately tried to incorporate them into my bonsai compositions. If one device was good, I reasoned that combining them together was better. When I would show Pai Mei my work, he would deliver his critique in three words, spoken with an extended pause between each word for reinforcement—”Just One Thing.”

Pai Mei would never directly explain the meaning of his phrase to me. He had a knack for dispensing little bits of obtuse wisdom at exactly the right time, like the way a gust of wind momentarily corrects the direction of a yawing boat. At first, I interpreted his phrase as a precept against over-embellishment. He was advising me to use no more than one artistic device. My first compositions, to their detriment, were unnecessarily florid; they used too many artistic devices. Knowing when not to use a device was more important than knowing when to use it. The first lesson I learned from Just One Thing was restraint.

My compositions gradually improved when I started practicing restraint, but it took me some time to understand why it was such an effective technique. Over-embellishment is problematic because it has a tendency to create discordance. Each artistic device in use competes for attention in the resulting work. Cinnamon, mint, and peanut butter-flavored tomato soup is unpalatable because the flavors are incongruent. Restraint helps safe-guard against this anti-pattern by preventing too many powerful components from being mixed together.

Discordance is one symptom belonging to the deeper problem of feature creep. Ill defined projects have a tendency to grow outward in all directs to a point where their function and aesthetic diverges from what was originally conceived. This problem is especially pernicious because of the gradual iterative nature of design. Over time, unnecessary features accumulate and reduce the quality of a work. A fundamental benefit of restraint is that it protects against feature creep by focusing the creative process. Restraint brings clarity to the resulting work by continuously forcing one to make explicit decisions about what should be included in a composition.

Beginners tend to unwittingly avoid restraint because it exposes the flaws in their work. It’s a humbling experience the first time you realize the tremendous gulf between the actual quality of your work and where you perceived it. When all the superfluous features are removed and the veil of Dunning-Kruger has been lifted, there is nowhere for flaws to hide; they are plainly visible. However, once restraint is embraced, it allows one to improve faster, because mistakes are easier to identify, remedy, and learn from. In this way, restraint speeds up the feedback loop of iterative design.

In the course of my apprenticeship, I had started by trying to master complexity and slowly realized I needed to learn simplicity. That lesson carried me a long way and it helped to improve my work. Gradually, I became better at understanding when to use an artistic device to maximizes its effect.

Despite my improvements, as I practiced restraint, I began to overuse it. My compositions became too minimalistic and my resulting work felt vapid. Restraint was necessary but not sufficient to create successful work. I was missing something.

Like a supporting cast of actors strengthens the effect of the protagonist, restraint enhances the main actors in a composition. I had gone from trying to use too many main characters to not using enough. I was missing a protagonist to pair with my foil. A foil is a character in a story who contrasts with the main character, usually to highlight one of their attributes. In an analogous way, the main function of restraint is to serve as the foil for a device. Restraint operates like a cast of supporting characters to enhance the effect of the protagonist, the artistic device.

The relationship between restraint and device allows one to push a composition outward along a dimension to a point where certain features appear unnatural or unconventional. The effect is desirable because it adds intrigue and novelty to a work. In general, restraint and device are proportional; using more restraint provides a means for adding more device. Restraint tempers the device so that it does not become overused and when it is used its effect is magnified.

In Goshin, restraint is used to foil jin. The silhouette of the forest planting forms an acute scalene triangle that creates a chevron to direct focus upward into the apex of the composition. This form is repeated in the contour of the pot adding balance and unity. The apex of the potting aligns with the apex of the tallest tree drawing focus up the main spire toward the artistic device. Using restraint along with a foil produces something that is of nature, but it is not from nature; its form is distinctly different from any forest found in nature. This effect provokes intrigue because it takes a familiar item like a forest and distorts it in a controlled way.

The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

Using restraint to foil a device is a ubiquitous design pattern. It has been used to great effect by many artists, including the Baroque master painter, Rembrandt. The effect is noticeable in perhaps his most famous work, The Night Watch. Here, Rembrandt uses his signature artistic device—a measured use of light, called chiaroscuro, coupled with a varnish-over-impasto technique to imbue the work with an incredible amount of energy. Most of the painting is confined to the shadows, which serve as a vehicle for restraint and magnifies the influence of the main actors in the composition.

Rembrandt limits his device of light and texture to selective areas such as facial expressions and important objects to maximize its effect. Perhaps the most intriguing of these areas is the cherubic girl holding a dead chicken, symbolizing the militia. She is painted in an unnatural ethereal halo of texture and light, which is juxtaposed with surrounding darkness and precise geometry. The spear held by a militiaman in the right background is collinear with the faces of Captain Cocq (red sash) and the girl. The flagpole, the girl, and Captain Cocq’s arquebus are in a similar collinear arrangement. Together these lines form a chevron to channel focus toward the girl and the other main characters. The interplay of restraint and artistic device is on full display.

Just One Thing generalizes to many domains including bonsai and painting. The aphorism is not strictly about visual art. More broadly, it is a general heuristic for designing systems with human interactivity.

I now think about Pai Mei’s credo mostly in the context of software design. Adding familiar imagery, symbols, color, navigation, animation, and functionality to software are manifestations of restraint. Reusing recognizable elements lowers the barrier for users to successfully interact with an application because there is a common visual vernacular. Operating within the confines of this language allows a user to anticipate how an application will function, thereby making the software easier to interact with, more cohesive, and better equipped to support unconventional features. Using restraint lowers the friction of interacting with an application and frees the user to concentrate on the more important problem of trying to interpret the underlying data.

On top of this vernacular, I’ve noticed a particularly successful design pattern is to layer just one thing—an unorthodox piece of functionality that enhances the software in some way. Selecting just one feature and implementing it in a unique way adds novelty to the work while simultaneously preserving the familiar vernacular that makes the application intuitive and easy to use. Restricting focus to a single feature allows me to channel my attention toward the one place I’ve deemed it most important. This heightened concentration improves my creativity and yields better work.

There are no rules in design, only guidelines. Just One Thing is a guideline for balancing the design problems inherent to over-complexity on one hand, and excessive minimalism on the other. From Pai Mai, I learned that restraint protects against the symptoms of over-complexity, while the artistic device safe-guards against the symptoms of excessive minimalism.