Beauty Is in Simplicity

There is one quote that I think is particularly good for all software developers to know and keep close to their hearts:

Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depends on simplicity. — Plato

In one sentence I think this sums up the values that we as software developers should aspire to.

There are a number of things we strive for in our code:

  • Readability
  • Maintainability
  • Speed of development
  • The elusive quality of beauty

Plato is telling us that the enabling factor for all of these qualities is simplicity.

What is beautiful code? This is potentially a very subjective question. Perception of beauty depends heavily on individual background, just as much of our perception of anything depends on our background. People educated in the arts have a different perception of (or at least approach to) beauty than people educated in the sciences. Arts majors tend to approach beauty in software by comparing software to works of art, while science majors tend to talk about symmetry and the golden ratio, trying to reduce things to formulae. In my experience, simplicity is the foundation of most of the arguments from both sides.

Think about source code that you have studied. If you haven't spent time studying other people's code, stop reading this right now and find some open source code to study. Seriously! I mean it! Go search the web for some code in your language of choice, written by some well-known, acknowledged expert.

You're back? Good. Where were we? Ah yes... I have found that code that resonates with me and that I consider beautiful has a number of properties in common. Chief among these is simplicity. I find that no matter how complex the total application or system is, the individual parts have to be kept simple. Simple objects with a single responsibility containing similarly simple, focused methods with descriptive names. Some people think the idea of having short methods of five to ten lines of code is extreme, and some languages make it very hard to do this, but I think that such brevity is a desirable goal nonetheless.

The bottom line is that beautiful code is simple code. Each individual part is kept simple with simple responsibilities and simple relationships with the other parts of the system. This is the way we can keep our systems maintainable over time, with clean, simple, testable code, keeping the speed of development high throughout the lifetime of the system. Beauty is born of and found in simplicity.

By Jørn Ølmheim

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