Why beauty matters to design.

“Who is to say that pleasure is useless” – Charles Eames


For the purposes of this little treatise, let’s assume ‘beauty’ and its appreciation as fitting neatly within Eames’ concept of ‘pleasure’. The terms are clearly not interchangeable, but they are perhaps closely enough related to draw some fresh meaning from this much-referenced quote.

We, here at EJ, define beauty as a pleasurable interface with aesthetic, material, proportion or function. The capacity for design to surprise and delight. This is not an affirmation of ‘sex sells’. In fact, such cynicism renders even the most sensuous images ugly in their context. Increasingly so for an audience long savvy to the old dogs and their tricks.

We see, then we think.

Our eyes work faster than our conscious minds. We form impressions and assumptions based on visual and physical stimuli, long before we have objectively processed their importance, quality or relevance. Once formed, we look for opportunities to confirm our ‘instincts’ rather than disprove them. You might call this ‘extra-contextual’ communication (with apologies to Edward T. Hall), or you could call it ‘priming’ an audience (ditto OK-RM), as both connote fundamental processes of intuitive, visceral and non-verbal communication that build foundations for engagement.

Designing communications, objects, and experiences that utilise the inherent allure of beauty (be it visual, haptic, auditory), prepares audiences to be receptive to their imperatives and intent.

Mediocrity is ugly. Beauty is difference.

The vast majority of communications and marketing materials are explicitly ephemeral. Products, campaigns, and programs have finite, predictable life spans. Brands grow and evolve into new forms, new markets, and new audiences. Nothing is forever. And yet, the vast majority of ‘designed’ communications feed into a glut of ugliness and mediocrity. Life is short (for us and our work). Let’s try something different. Let’s make something beautiful and resonant.

Surely better a noble attempt at greatness, than condemnation to the vanilla slurry of market expectation.

Function is beautiful.

“Form follows function”… A bit of a wooly one, really. Because–to this product of a modernist design education–it surely must for any design output to have true purpose or integrity. And yet, what pleasure is pure function? Countless designers over the decades from the 1920’s to the present have engaged with just this question. Perhaps a truly functional design edifies the mundane, making the everyday a little more beautiful. Beauty is not dependent on function, but functionality may be more fully realised through beautiful experiences.

A final thought.

Sometimes we don’t need beauty, we need ugly, contentious or confronting. Not everything must be beautiful, but designers are often so conditioned to think that beauty is frivolous, or menial in relation to conceptual or methodical rigour, that opportunities are lost. Let’s take beauty seriously as a valuable asset in realising creative briefs. Seriously enough to debate its merit at each new design opportunity. All our work will be the better for it.

What does getting it ‘right’ look like?

Here’s a kettle and other domestic appliances from Japanese retailer Muji.

Here’s a billboard for IBM by Ogilvy & Mather France.

Here’s a campaign for the Samaritans charity in the UK by MullenLowe & Nadav Kandar.

Talk to us about how we can bring beauty to your design.