The smallest effective difference

October 24, 2014 by Joshua
in Art, Awareness, Nature

Once in college, where floor living means shared bathrooms, as I brushed my teeth, a guy walked up to the sink next to me, turned on the water full blast, calmly brushed his teeth as gallons of water flowed out the faucet completely unused, and then, on finishing brushing, turned the water back off.

A lot of people live this way.

I can’t believe people live that way. I mean, I can, but I don’t like thinking that way. Treating the water takes energy, which means burning coal. In some places it means emptying groundwater than might take generations to replace. Living that way means not just using up water. It means using up oil, making unnecessary noise, eating too much, and so on.

Medicine uses the smallest effective dose. Giving more medicine than the patient needs introduces more risk. Fitness has the principle of the smallest effective exercise. Entrepreneurship has its minimum viable product. Design aims for the smallest effective difference. The abstract art paintings below, by abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt, illustrates the concept, though a computer screen doesn’t do them the justice of seeing them in person. You have to look at them carefully to see their designs.

Ad Reinhardt subtle painting 1
Ad Reinhardt subtle painting 2
Ad Reinhardt subtle painting 3
Ad Reinhardt subtle painting 4
Ad Reinhardt subtle painting 5

I find them subtle and elegant and I try to live my life that way—not necessarily as dark as the paintings, but with that subtlety, nuance, and elegance. Living with subtlety and nuance makes life into art.

Blasting on the water, the stereo, the gas pedal, and so on has no nuance or subtlety. It can be fun sometimes, but there’s no benefit to blasting the faucet when you aren’t even using the water.

Paying attention to nuance makes you pay attention and respect your environment more—not just trees, air, water, etc, but other people. And yourself.

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3 responses on “The smallest effective difference

  1. Love these thoughts, Joshua — thanks for sharing.

    • I meant to post on it for a long time. You’re welcome.

      The idea came from Edward Tufte’s book Envisioning Information, where I first saw Reinhardt’s painting.

      I plan to follow up the post with one listing smallest effective examples in my life.

  2. Pingback: Exercise in minimizing - Joshua Spodek

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