Design and the Pursuit of Beauty

Turner's "Burning of Parliament"

In our oversaturated commercial spaces, a store shelf for instance, without the brand established in the customer’s mind, the shopper has no idea what to take off the shelf. Often they are pressed for time and resort to shortcuts. In this article, I will provide the case for Beauty and the Beautiful as a crucial function of the product itself enabling a way in for your brand and the sale of more items.

We are bombarded on the street, in strip malls, in supermarkets, department stores, app stores, and pretty much every commercial space by ugly design in marketing and product packaging. In the United States at least, it is this way in part because of a societal belief that a manufacturer’s attention to aesthetics necessarily serves to sacrifice quality or function. The case might be made that if a product is displayed beautifully, a larger percentage of your purchase is dedicated to premium printing, packaging, signage, or real-estate. This is especially the case where worldwide competition is imposing itself onto every store shelf, and the demands to stay competitive price-wise make risks outside the most conventional less than-beautiful-norm an unattractive and risky business decision. In the typical American mind, beautiful products are reserved for luxury. Is this necessarily true? Does it have to be this way? Are we witnessing a change?

A sea of ugly packaging doesn’t have to be the case. For example, in Japan, nearly every piece of packaging you see in a store is attractive in some way. Companies over there and their designers seem to understand, and have for at least 1000 years, what I am about to tell you.

The brain has mechanisms in place for making decisions. When overwhelmed by the enormous amount of decisions we need to make in such little time, the human resorts to shortcuts. One of these begs the question “Which products would I like to see in my home”, “which would I need to keep in a cupboard or closet away from view?”, "What can't I have out with company coming over?" Sadly, this is an overlooked question by many manufacturers in the United-States. It is now up to designers to provide their unique expertise in this field. If it isn’t our responsibility to ensure our spaces and creations are a pleasure to be in or behold, whose is it? It is time that branding must be approached holistically and creators of design must take a seat at the table in important manufacturing decisions.

Good designers are not afraid to pursue and talk about Beauty in their or others' work. If you are, it’s likely you are a bad designer. 

When a client asks us “Why have you designed it this way?” The answer often includes “Because it is more beautiful.” We believe Beauty is a legitimate goal of a brand. Often, a product functions better and will sell more units if it is beautiful. Creating beauty should be in the interest of any brand looking to take advantage of the psychological shortcuts mentioned earlier. It is arguable that beauty is a function of the product itself for this very purpose. We as humans have a crucial need to cover up the ugly and adorn our space with beauty. We know at a deeper level than those occupied by societal mores that if something is beautiful, it is functional.

Just take a glance outside into the world of nature; you will see the highest form of function humanity can hope to comprehend.

By working to create a beautiful object of design, we are committing ourselves to a higher standard of work. That goes to say that if a work of design is aesthetically pleasing but fails to convey or fulfil its purpose, its Beauty will be questioned.

Well isn’t Beauty in the eye of the Beholder?

Sure it is. However, that is not the kind of beauty we are talking about here. Our little boys and girls deserve to grow up with self-esteem. This is not what we are talking about in this article. Human perception is capable of drawing infinite connections and associations convincing one that something is when it isn’t or something isn’t when it is. Beauty and that of love is an incredibly personal concept. This is not the kind of beauty we are talking about pursuing. When we talk about beauty in the context of design, we are talking about a formal intent to a higher standard of creativity and its results. To pursue Beauty is to aim higher than just the utilitarian result. Pretty is not enough and useful is not enough. We must aim to make people’s lives better and our world better to live in.

Bruegel's "Tower of Babel"

If everyone uses different criteria and subjective experiences to define and identify beauty, the goal of beauty in design, the arts, or architecture becomes useless. We are unable to communicate the concept and discussion comes to a halt. Plato is with his “beauty is Truth” Etc. assumes the form of a babbling infant. All eyes see beauty when it is truly there. We must insist, as designers, it is not an ambiguous concept but quantifiable and proven again and again.

Differentiation is the name of the brand game. The Design vs Art Argument. 

Design, with its inherently commercial agenda, rarely risks alienating, at least intentionally, potential consumers. Their goal is marketability and their strategy is most often to market to everyone. Fine art, on the other hand, sometimes cultivates, welcome or not, negative reactions. Here's a little marketing 101, if you are attempting to appeal to everyone, you will never truly reach anyone. If everything is battling for your attention, we hear and see nothing. Designers are still stuck attempting to create the one size fit’s all approach and refuse the responsibility of pursuing beauty on the world’s behalf. Let’s get real. It’s much harder than just making something work, let alone making something work, have uniqueness, and attain Beauty as well.

We see designers desperately attempting to differentiate but they lack understanding of the real problem. In the past few years we see the advent of UX (User Experience) design. The main idea behind this methodology is to differentiate themselves from UI (User Interface) designers who, according to the UX guys, think about form exclusively and not function at all. However chic it may be to hire a UX designer a year ago, these people have completely divorced themselves from aesthetics as a crucial function of a product. UX designers dedicate themselves fully to eliminating as many “Distractions” as possible between the user’s entrance to their territory and “conversion”. They fully subscribe to the idea of beauty as a hinderance to functionality. They state these on their Linked-in profiles, websites, and resumes as if it is a wonderful breakthrough. It’s not. It’s the same shit we saw with the functionalists and the Bauhaus movement in the 1920’s and 30’s. Just take look at the results. We have an oversupply of experts who are fully dedicated to making everything look and act the same.

We will get into UX / UI designers at another time. Let’s talk about what took place to get us in this mess.

A short history of Beauty in the Western World

To seek beauty is an inextricable part of being human. As long as recorded history and archaeology can recall, and before tools were a thing, the aesthetic was always a motivation of human activity. The earliest tools and works of human hands we know about uncover trivial characteristics such as symmetry and an attention to form beyond the pure utility of the piece itself. Such usage of symmetry and other examples of attention to take advantage of man’s innate pattern recognition system. This is a widely known and studied advantage in gaining dominance over foes, predators, and the environment. We learned which plants were edible and how to navigate danger by making use of observing symmetry and other patterns in our surroundings. The pursuit of beauty always was functional as it was a tool for survival.

 The Ancient Greeks

The Erechtheion

Rarely has beauty been pursued with such reverence and societal importance than of ancient Greece. The study of natural form has reached levels of care never seen before in human history and the world will not see again until many centuries later in the renaissance which took direct inspiration from the Greece’s aesthetic style and philosophy. The classical philosopher, Plato was known to equate the beautiful with that which is morally good. He has also gone as far with this ideology to equate beauty with truth and truth with beauty. The Greeks continue to lend license to works of design even until this day. The result is a breathtaking inheritance of Classical and Neo-Classical architectural memes originating in Greece, sculptural rendering that attempt to re-conceive the subject as they are, a grand study with the goal of understanding the nature light itself and how the eye perceives what it sees, of undeniably beautiful marble sculptures, and systems of government still informing those we see today. The romans took these ideas, made it their own, and elaborated upon them. Nevertheless, the drive towards beauty that resulted in the Roman style can be attributed to the Greeks. The enormously influential Roman student of Greek architecture Vitruvius measured the success of architecture to be the combined elements of order arrangement, proportion, symmetry, décor, and distribution.

 Medieval times

 “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” Exodus 20:4

“…According to the Ten Commandments, art, therefore, is more dangerous than murder.” Leonard Shlain in Art & Physics

The Cologne Cathedral

With puritanical religion came a view of the human form as ugly. Very few if any studied it studied it and in a devastating sense the most of the works of such study left to us from the Greeks did not survive this period. It was not acceptable to worship the world of nature like the pagans in Greece and pretty much everywhere else did. All beauty was reserved for the after life and the church was the only medium. Even the medieval churches were guiding your eyes up from its foundation and our horrible existence towards the beyond. Depictions of the human form and of plants and animals became stylized and contorted because very few studied form anymore, their focus was salvation from the horrible world they took part in.

The Renaissance

Raphael's "School at Athens"

The renaissance was a true rebirth of where the Greeks left off in their pursuit and reverence of beauty. Even pagan religion and nature-based theology was said to have been practiced outside the eyes of the church. The Catholic church was the reigning power with most of the money in their hands. That means that they were the main patrons of art and it is why most art coming from this time were of religious subject matter if not owned by popes and clergymen. Many of the frescos, mosaics, and paintings feature pagan subject-matter. Out of this period was a philosophical and scientific revolution inspired by and driven by the pursuit of the wealth of Beauty this world has to offer. Artists began to take joy in the study of form again, perfect the art of rendering an image of space on a 2D plane, and dedicate their power to building timeless testaments to the limitless nature of their new universe. The artistic genius and practical contributions by renaissance figures like Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, or any of the other Ninja Turtles are undeniable.

Durer's Wild Sow

Onward through time we see elaborations on the work of the renaissance by the Rembrandts, Vermeers, Titians, and Carravagios. We still see the marble renderings of Bernini sweep tourists off their feet by their sheer undeniable beauty. Priceless treasures are created from every age and are attributed to the obsession with form and the beauty of nature and the universe which was re-ignited in the renaissance.

"Montecello" at Thomas Jefferson's Estate

The nineteenth century experienced its own rebirth and obsession with beauty. This was a little loaded in its ideology however. The puritanism of religion was still apart of every-day life and beauty was only to be expressed in the arts. It was widely accepted that art had no other function than to create beauty. It was here that function was deemed and widely accepted as necessarily unbeautiful and beauty necessarily without practical function. The world of the sciences were clearly differentiated from the arts unlike the periods before. It was here the copying of renaissancical style in sculpture, painting, and architecture became the curriculum for the beloved artist. Without acknowledgement of how the Greeks painted their sculptures and structures in vibrant colors suspended in wax, and havn't standed the test of time because of it, the nineteenth century artists idealized the white marble relics inherited from Greece just as the renaissance men. This is known as the neo-classical style. Everything coming out of this neo-classical style was copied from something made before. Elaboration on the classical style was seen as obscene and so the works lack the luster we find as such in their pristine form. They were purely decorative and lacked the heart and soul we wish to see from a holistic drive towards beauty the Greeks and the Renaissance men clearly had. Beauty was reduced to a formula for ornamentation. Eventually, this fake-ness was taken for what it was and was rebelled against.

The Bauhaus and the Industrial Revolution 

Pieces featuring empty and impractical ornamentation were everywhere works of design could be seen. In comes the machine age and the industrial revolution. Relying on the formulas of the past was easily seen as a travesty. They were ripe for a new style that did away with the unnecessary in favor of the precise and efficient. Machine molding and reproduction via tooling became the star of the show.

Contrasting this, flaws in production were easily hidden by elaborative designs and were resorted to by the least skilled artisans and machinists. Ornamentation became seen as tacky, cheap, flawed, or unnecessary. For a while, the fashion was to manicure each object to be clean, precise, and above all reproduce-able. However, reproducing smooth and perfectly angular objects by hand took more attention and time but nevertheless it became a goal destined to be achievable by the industrial manufacturing revolution. The dichotomy between practical simplicity and useless ornamentation were a prominent argument of the age.

With many artists coming home from World War 1 scarred and disillusioned with the state of the world, the moral value of beauty held little weight. If human beings could be capable of total war and annihilate one another using reproduced machines, what role should beauty ever play? Many many people were yearning to eradicate the pursuit of Beauty from contemporary culture.

They say “Form follows function.”

Influenced by the industrial efficiency of contemporary life, the architect and Bauhaus alumnus Louis Sullivan coined the phrase ‘Form Follows Function” which we still hear today. The idea behind this is that beauty should not be considered in a work of design, only function. If the work is sufficiently functional, it would then by happen stance be assumed beautiful. This didn’t hold the guy back however. His body of work was dominated by highly ornamental work of no practical use whatsoever. Clearly, the original meaning behind his phrase was lost in the annals of time itself and assumed the role of mantra for he misinformed yearnings of a cookie cutter wartime culture.

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain

In 2004 it was voted by five hundred museum directors, artists, curators, and collectors as the most important piece of art in the 20th century. Marcel Duchamp’s fountain was a urinal turned on its side with ‘R. Mutt” written on it. Duchamp openly stated his disinterest in what he called “retinal art” ie: purely visual art, and stated preference for the conceptual in art. Aesthetics were discouraged from the subject of discussion in cutting edge art forums and from this point forward, the use of aesthetics in art were no longer considered avant-garde, only works of conceptual quality.

Communism and “the International Style”

The embrace of functionality of the modernist was taken in the 1950s and turned into totalEconomic Functionalism. Let’s talk a little bit about this sad failure of human invention. There is nothing functional about it.

With communism and state-funded housing projects we find families forced to live in homogeneously designed boxes. These places are reserved for the low income because in reality, nobody in their right mind would want to live in such a place. Crime rates increase, and the human experience is encouraged to reach new lows in one form or another. Desperate attempts to cover up the dead precision of the hastily state-built housing can be seen and an era of hoarding curtains, tchotchkes, doilies, motif-rich wallpaper, etc. could be appreciated out of these. Visit your local rummage shop to see what kind of things people kept in their homes at this time. Housing conditions are widely considered to be the biggest determining factor for the fall of communism. Nevertheless, the box became the norm and no matter where you fall on the map, the diverse style of your locality was replaced with the box. Instead of conforming to natural terrain, seasons, airflow, sunlight etc. to optimize living conditions and comfort, the box necessitated artificial cooling in the summers, and other forms of intervention at the construction site. We can see the box applied to the steaming hot climate of southern India as well as the snow covered terrain ofNorway.

With so many buildings destroyed during World War 2 in Germany, an epic rebuild of the country’s buildings was needed. They got the box big-time! The advocates for the style tended to lean left politically which was a desired break from the oppressionist Nazi regime a generation ago. Little did they know how influenced by the concentration camp model these architects and city-planners were. The effort to house as many people as humanly possible, as quickly as possible, had to have been coincidental and that the same people responsible for designing the barracks at the Auschwitz concentration camp were put in influential decision-making positions for what would be the new German and eventually International Style of human housing. The term “the International Style (or what I like to call: “the box”), was coined by Nazi sympathizer Johnson in the the newly established architectural department of the Museum of Modern Art in NewYork.

It was in Germany that the modern type layout was conceived. Jan Tshichold invented the modern page grid with his book Die Neue Typographie. The white space itself was subject to a formula for what page composition was fit to be printed. Sans serif typefaces were almost exclusively used at this time as part of a formula for doing away with the unnecessariness deemed to be serif typefaces. The new modernist style of graphic design has not been shot of fanatics even today.

 “form follows function”, “less is more”, and almost every other modernist adage has been recanted by the originators of each respective saying as too extreme or in direct response to the misinterpretation of it. Jan Tshichold renounced his ideas in Die Neue Typographie as overly authoritarian and Fascist and oversaw a re-edition of all his paperbacks in classical typefaces. Nevertheless, the principles of his influential book are still taught to every design student and the page grid formula is shoved down our throats like never before in design schools. 

Television, a new kind of Goddess worship

To the privileged literate of previous ages, the rich world of books was once the most engaging and joyful experience. As the 20th century went on, literacy and education became more commonplace, and its quality began to go down. Couple that with the "New Typography", books were established in the younger generation's minds as a heavily daunting and boring experience. Into the 50's and 60's the televison's entrance into more and more homes created a more exhilarating alternative to reading as a medium. An entire generation, raised by television, was now at complete odd's with their parents. What we had was an entire new generation wired to worship the image and the good looking.

When you read a book, you generate beta waves irrespective of the book's content. But if you look up from it, and start watching TV - it doesn't matter what the content of the program is - the beta waves disappear and you start processing alpha and theta waves. These are the same waves that you generate during meditation. Reading is primarily left hemisphere and watching television is primarily right hemisphere. Now how could that not have a major effect on our culture? - Leonard Shlain

With a wedge between two halfs of a generation were the "squares" and the ones that have "tuned in." The Fake or Plastic vs the Authentic or the Cool was the dichotomy that defined a generation that turned their back on... pretty much everything... and towards the wonderful world they envisioned influenced by the televison. Contributing to the world of art and design had to have been a figure to exacerbate this cognitive dissonance. Some one the greatest works of creative exploration came out of this period. And so they say, you have to lose oneself in order to find oneself.

....and that asshole Andy Warhol.

As a display that art has no marketable value, Andy Warhol displays a box designed by prominent contemporary fine artist James Harvey, who allegedly needed to take a graphic design gig to pay off debts.

In a similar vein of Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal displayed amongst the prevailing styles of Cubism,Expressionism, and Futurism, we have Andy Warhol in the 60’s displaying his works alongside abstract expressionism. However ironic, Warhol decided to declare that Beauty was to be found only in the commercial. “The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonalds. The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonalds. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonalds. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.” 

Beauty has become a cringy word

I personally have been trying to figure out why that whenever a journalist brings up Beauty when interviewing a designer, they are responded to with indignation. “Designers are problem solvers”, “We create experiences!” blah blah blah. Yeah I get it. Ideas are easy and Beauty is hard. You’re coping out in preference for what you are taught and convinced is marketable. I call bullshit. Designers are artists. If you are unconcerned with beauty, you have some serious questions to ask yourself about what kind of would you wish to contribute to with your work. It is what it is. Let’s zoom forward.

A, kind of, return to grace.

The iPhone

Steve Jobs is someone that believed the marketing is a crucial part of the product itself. Beauty was an enormous concern for him. The iPhone, arguably the most influential product of design of the last decade, is no exception to this and there is no smartphone that doesn’t take license from Apple’s product design decisions. I read a story about when the Chinese manufacturers Apple was working with at the time refused to create a one-piece mold for a certain iMac stand. The seam that would result from a two-piece mold was unacceptable. Apple made the big decision to switch to a different manufacturer. For a company so large and, with a stock so publicly traded, and product scope so immense, and knowing a bit about manufacturing from working in the industry, such a decision would be drastic. Taking license from centuries of Japanese packaging design, Apple definitely understands the theatrical nature of the unwrapping event. Say what you want about planned-obsolescence or the Foxcon labor camps; It really doesn’t get better than the experience of unwrapping a new Apple product.

Instagram

Of the popular social-media platforms, the one most closely associated with aesthetics is Instagram. Snapchat’s content is too short lived to pay attention to form, and Facebook is an aesthetic shit-show that clearly claims to focus on social connection.Twitter discourages visual content in favor of quick to the punch political banter and trash-talking. Not everything “Liked” on Instagram is necessarily beautiful. Not everything beautiful on Instagram gets many likes. Regardless, through its image centric design and openly stated and known function, and how it is excepted as a medium, Instagram is a visually driven site.

I do not thinkInstagram is a purely positive force for designers and for society. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that you need to be on Instagram if you are a creative professional of any sort. I can rant up and down about how the attention-based business model of these social media companies is contributing to a complete mess of our collective psyche and our ability to focus on anything for more than 5 seconds. Accomplishing all this, we have also accomplished a highly curated and idealized view of everyone’s life and brand.

There was an interview on The Futur of a seasoned professional photographer who was hired for a significant gig with Canon. When the company found out she had less than 50,000 followers on Instagram, they terminated the contract last-minute.

So many have made the case for the negative aspects of Instagram is but there is a great deal of good that has come out of this however attention-based style of networking. We now have an abundant access to examples of beauty and anyone can curate their own mini-gallery accessible at any time from anywhere. With Google Image Search and others, we have unprecedented access to visual spectacles, examples of more beautiful ways of doing any given thing, at unprecedented convenience and speed.

The return of the album cover in the 2000’s way after the medium was replaced by cassette and cd in the 80’s and 90’s

There is no demonstration to the world waking up to beauty as a beheld and inherently valuable than the return of the vinyl album after the dawn of the new millennium. Musical artists more often than not make their songs available online and also offer a pressed vinyl record complete with the classic style vinyl cover. In the majority of cases, people just download the songs and keep the album in pristine condition for its visual quality alone. The album cover as a medium has been the territory of artistic expression unbounded by function or prevailing style. It just is. It is a welcome accompaniment to the musical beauty contained on the tracks within. It is hard to differentiate the album cover from our experience of albums like Abbey Road or Dark Side of the Moon.

Beautiful Sounds

The sounds of birds. The sounds of insects. The sound of the stream, of the train, of the ocean. Relaxing sound apps are more popular than ever. The tourism industry knows this and has capitalized on attractions around the world for their natural beauty both visually, and auditory.

The demand for music and the experience of enjoying music with others will never go away.

Take a listen to Frank Zappa’s late rock opera “Joe’s Garage” to get a traumatizing glimpse into a dystopian future where music is made illegal.

ASMR

This whole ASMR craze is worth taking note of. Look it up. Get your earphones ready and prepare yourself to have your eardrums tickled by the sounds of long fingernails gently moving and tapping against a table, craftsmen working with their hands in quiet room, toothbrushing. Some of these get as weird as listing to someone chew gum for a half hour.

Beautiful Smells 

Fresh baked bread, young flowers, the ocean breeze, the woods, good cookin. We never could get enough.

Beautiful tastes and textures

The fine culinary industry is built on our desire to appease our need to experience beauty with our sense of taste and texture. Nothing feels better than to wear a well-fitting outfit made with pleasing materials against our skin.

The list goes on and on and I can’t possibly name or do justice to them all.

Conclusion

Beauty itself is function. Without it, very few things work well. As designers, we must never overlook the importance of beauty in the work we create or else we will be condemned to a world where expediency is privileged and dull work the norm. To pursue beauty is to raise the standards for creativity beyond the purely utilitarian solution, and its results with the goal of improving the lives of everyone who sees it. As a designer, I am taking the responsibility of the artist and am dedicating my career to the pursuit of beauty. I invite you to join me in this mission. Let’s talk about it.

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