The Looking Glass: How to tell if work is beautiful

What is beauty? Why is nature beautiful? The case for making beautiful things

Julie Zhuo
5 min readNov 16, 2023

Dear readers,

I used to think beautiful was a word to describe people. Then, as a surly teenager forced into national park road trips, I begrudgingly added nature into the bucket.

Later, as I trod the path of design, it became a word to describe interfaces or objects. A website here, an app there, a sleek aluminum edge, an airy monochrome composition.

My currency, in some ways, comes from my eye’s scrutiny for beauty. But I am continuing to discover how limited that eye is.

Enjoy these tidbits on the theme of beauty.



This week’s tidbits:

  1. How to tell if work is beautiful
  2. What is beauty?
  3. The same beauty
  4. From the archives: Good design

For paid subscribers:

  1. Subscriber mailbag: How to balance user experience with short term revenue generation?
  2. Why is nature beautiful?
  3. The case for making beautiful things

How to tell if work is beautiful

If your work was done according to your intention and at the cliff’s edge of your ability — be proud, for you have done beautiful work.

If someone else’s work makes you pause and feel awe at what we humans are capable of — then you have experienced someone else’s beautiful work

In both these definitions, consider that only you can tell when you glimpsing the infinity of the human spirit.

What is beauty?

Symmetry is beautiful, because life blooms in cycles rather than episodes.

Elegance is beautiful, because everything that matters can be described in a few math equations or observed between a few kindergartners.

Contrast is beautiful, because something that lacks an alternative also lacks meaning.

Connection is beautiful, because the same molecule you have breathed, I have, too.

Rarity is beautiful, because from the tendrils of chaos, inexplicable magic happened to bring us to this very moment.

The same beauty

When we talk of beautiful products, we typically imagine attractive hardware or slick visuals.

But when we compliment a database for being fast, or when we praise an experience for being easy; when a marketing campaign stops us in our tracks or when scanning a dashboard gives us a sense of power, we are noticing the same sort of beauty.

It is the beauty that rages against the natural state of the world — inertia.

It is the beauty of the tremendous energy expended in taming disorder.

Is it the beauty of passion, the alchemy of turning work into purpose.

Do not judge a product’s beauty by its aesthetics; judge it by how it made you feel.

From the Archives: Good Design

My first design job was an internship on Microsoft OneNote in 2007. Our intrepid leader was the product founder Chris Pratley, who terrified me the way karaokeing Adele onstage while completely sober is terrifying. My goal that summer was for him to not think I was an idiot, and my strategy to achieve that was to try and be completely unmemorable in his presence.

Lowly intern that I was, our interactions were few, and he was sparse with his words, so I was largely executing on my strategy with flying colors when one day in a group meeting, for one reason or another, he looked over at me, grinned like we were sharing an inside joke, and said something that has stuck with me ever since:

You know you have a good design when you show it to people and they say, “oh, yeah, of course,” like the solution was obvious.

Still looking at me, he continued: “It’s not ever obvious to come up with, though. You could be doing months and months of iteration before you come up with that obvious solution.”

I blinked, surprised, trying to interpret whether this was some veiled insinuation about my work. Eventually, I accepted it as simply a small nugget of wisdom from someone who had been to the front lines and back.

And a nugget of wisdom it was, although back then it struck me as one of those proverbs you tuck in your back pocket and pull out in instances you wanted to sound older and wiser, like a fake ID. Over the years, however, I have uncovered for myself one layer after another, unfurling like petals sprouting from that seed of a statement.

Good design feels obvious — this is what it means to me today:

  1. “Good” design means it is a) valuable: you’re solving a real problem for people b) easy to use: people find it understandable, accessible and fast c) well-crafted: the entire experience feels designed with thought and care.
  2. If you cannot get a group of people for whom your product is designed for to generally agree that your design is good, it’s not good.
  3. If you cannot get a group of designers to generally agree that your design is easy-to-use and well-crafted, then it isn’t.
  4. The greatest frustration is feeling like you’re getting too much criticism from too many people (which, according to #2, means your design is not yet good). This is either because a) you’re working under too many constraints b) you’re not exploring solutions broadly enough, or c) the problem is beyond your current skill level.
  5. If you’re working under too many constraints that make it impossible to get to a solution that is obviously good, you need to voice that loud and clear with your team.
  6. If you’re feeling the frustration of #3 but aren’t sure why or how to make progress, the most powerful and effective thing you can do is take a swig of humility juice, admit that you’re stuck, and ask for help.
  7. Obviousness comes from conforming to people’s existing mental models. Don’t waste time reinventing common UI patterns or paradigms unless they are at least 2x better, or you have some critical brand reason to do so.
  8. Better design does not mean more design. Often, the most obvious designs are invisible.

Below are 3 more pieces for paid subscribers:

  1. Subscriber mailbag: How to balance user experience with short term revenue generation?
  2. Why is nature beautiful?
  3. The case for making beautiful things

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Julie Zhuo

Building Sundial ( Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.