Theory of a design goal:

Beauty of a Product

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Beauty is an important goal in the design of many products. For a designer, it would perhaps be easier to attain this goal, if we were able to define and measure beauty in the same way as, for example, the weight of an object. Indeed, this is just what numerous researchers have tried to do since antiquity until our day, see the page Early Theories of Beauty, but nobody has yet found a definite relation between the proportions or other properties of an object, and the assessments of its beauty. It thus seems that 'beauty' is no permanent or independent property of objects.

A more secure point of departure for study is the fact that nearly always when observing an object that we would call beautiful, we experience a pleasant sensation. According to this view, the meaning of an assertion such as "This object is beautiful" is really "I like this object, and if somebody doesn't he has bad taste". Beauty would thus be no property of an object, but instead a property of perception, and the object of its study would be not only beautiful objects but the whole process of perceiving beauty or ugliness (i.e. the approach of perception psychology) or even its significance in the person's social context (the approach of sociology of art).

In the following we discuss a few psychological and sociological theories of perception and their merits in describing and explaining the sensation of beauty in an object. Finally there are some thoughts about the possibilities of normative application of these theories in the design of new objects.

Descriptive Theory of Beauty

Perception is the process where the human mind arranges the immense amount of material that our senses are all the time registering and sending to the cognition. The target is to select from the sensations those that have importance or interest for the person. Perception takes place all the time, for the most part subconsciously.

In the initial, subconscious phase or layer of perception one usual procedure seems to be the formation of patterns or outlines (in German: Gestalt). It is an important step of reducing the amount of superfluous detail in the sensations and finding familiar and comprehensible patterns in them, among which patterns the human cognition then can select those that need a reaction or are worth a conscious appraisal.

When forming patterns, the human mind seems to obey certain regularities, the so-called Gestalt laws. Among them are the following:

An example of the transformation of close objects into larger figures is the following:

 i iI Ii iI Ii iI Ii iI Ii iI Ii i

The line of signs above will usually be perceived as pairs which are formed by signs close to each other, either iI or Ii. A more logical grouping in which the similar elements ii and II would form pairs seldom takes place in the first phase of perception: it is more typical in the later phases of reflection when the subject consciously evaluates and interprets his perception.

One phenomenon of perception takes place when smaller components become a bigger whole. Let us look at the following figure which is composed just of the plus and minus signs:

 ------------------------
 ----++++++----++++++----
 ------++--------++------
 ------++--------++------
 ----++++++----++++++----
 ------------------------

From behind the signs, the figure I I becomes perceptible, I I being a background structure (in German: Superzeichen).

The picture in the consciousness concerning circumstances on the outside, acquired by a perception process, can become interesting and important to the observer only when he has related this image to his earlier picture of the world. Thereafter the individual can decide whether the perceived matter calls for a reaction or not. In this evaluation, earlier learned attitudes and behaviour patterns serve as a frame. The social environment is crucial in this because it provides the value judgements of the physical objects in the individual's environment.

It is interesting to look at the perception process in the light of the recent quantitative theory of information. The unit information is measured with is the bit (= binary digit). It is the smallest amount of information other than zero. One bit of information tells us if a binary quantity has the value 1 or 0. One letter contains about five bits of information. However, a 25 letter word strains our memories with far less than 125 bits, for as soon as we see the beginning of the word, we can figure out the rest. This is because in long words, there is a great deal of redundant i.e. repetitive information.

The capacity of perception is quite limited. It is capable of receiving only about 20 bits a second altogether through all the senses. From the short storage time of our consciousness follows that the amount of information which we can process at a time cannot considerably exceed the amount of a hundred bits.

Perception and pleasure. You have perhaps sometimes come across a blurred figure or text, for example a cryptogram, and wanted to figure out its meaning. You can probably recall the enjoyment at the moment of enlightenment when you have figured out the hidden meaning of the message. This pleasant feeling seems to be directly caused by the fact that the consciousness of a human being has worked hard and attained its goal: perception.

Another example which can be tried out right now. On the right, there is a picture by Bartlett representing a young woman. It is also possible to perceive this picture in a totally different way, but that usually requires some effort. I am asking the reader to try to perceive this again and to pay attention to his or her feelings when the new outline is found.

According to a hypothesis put forward by George Birkhoff in 1933, the above feeling of pleasure which is physically caused by the very effort to perceive and the success in it, is the same thing as the aesthetic pleasure obtained when looking at works of art. A person looking at a work of art intensively looks for and also finds some initially hidden, "deeper" structure in the work of art, which causes a pleasant feeling.

We may call "beauty" that feeling of pleasure which follows from the effort to perceive and the success in finding an initially hidden background structure in the work of art. That hidden structure might be e.g. the triangular form of a traditional Madonna painting, or a geometrical structure of shapes or proportions like the Modulor of Le Corbusier. But it might alternatively consist of a message, i.e. the work of art or product symbolizes something, see Theories Of Message on a separate page.

Moreover, if the object of study is not a work of fine art but a product that is used for a practical purpose, we may sometimes feel delighted (and have a sensation of beauty, or near it) when we discover unexpected qualities in the product, for example an unusually high level of quality, of usability, of safety, or any of the various sources of interest in products discussed later on.

The deeper structure always lacks the majority of details of the surface structure of the work of art, so it is always simpler than the surface layer (or at least it looks simple at first before it, too, may reveal new depths). Thus, the quantitative theory of beauty provides an explanation for something that many researchers of aesthetics have noticed, mainly that one component of beauty is simplicity. The same goes for scientific work as well: a line of thought can be called beautiful or elegant particularly because of the startling simplicity of its basic idea.

The pleasure caused by unravelling the background structure is strongest if it is preceded by an intellectual problem: at first, the work seems otherwise explicit but there is something mysterious, irritating and incompatible in it. At the moment of "a-hah" or "eureka", all the pieces fall in place, the irritation disappears and a pleasant feeling of clarity replaces it.

The sensations of irritation in a complex situation and pleasure when it is sorted out, are by no means restricted to aesthetic experiences - in fact, they seem to belong to man's original biological abilities, and they are necessary when man needs to adapt himself to changes in the environment. See e.g. Toffler 1970 p. 297.

The intensity of pleasant feeling depends on the amount of intellectual effort used when studying the work of art. If the work of art is very easy to interpret, trivial or commonplace, its aesthetic value remains low.

ElectroluxCompare the experiences of finding the background patterns in the symbols on the left and on the right.
British EagleThe Electrolux trademark on the left at first seems be hinting to air conditioning, vents and fans only. It reveals its another meaning, the letter E, first in prolonged inspection. As a reward, it gives more aesthetic pleasure when the second explanation is found. -- The trademark of the British Eagle aviation company on the right discloses its double content of the letter E and an eagle, effortlessly and without producing much aesthetic pleasure, either.

On the other hand, a work of art shoud not be so complicated that outlining its background structure and deeper content becomes impossible. The diagram on the right indicates how aesthetic pleasure depends on the complexity of the work. There is an optimum level of complexity.

The optimum for complexity is different for a layman that has earlier seen few or no similar works of art, and for an expert in the pertinent field of art, see the figure on the left. The more works of art the expert has seen or heard, the less he is interested in superficial structures which are often common to many works of contemporary artists. He passes these standard characteristics as self-evident facts, and they do not give him any aesthetic pleasure. On the other hand, his erudition makes him capable to find out, interpret and enjoy more complicated works than is possible for a layman. It is even possible that a given work of art (marked with x in the diagram) can be too intricate for the layman while being too simple for an expert!

Gradual comprehension

Abraham A. Moles (1966) has added precision to Birkhoff's hypothesis. According to Moles, the greatest pleasure produced by perception is felt when consciousness is allowed to function at its maximal effect, that is, approximately at the rate of 100 bits a second.
According to this, first of all, a work of art should contain a sufficient amount of superficial content or decoration immediately appealing to the senses. As a starting point to the interpretation can serve also the name of the work, if any. But to qualify as competent art, the work must be able to offer also a deeper content. Finding this deeper content will then produce the pleasant feeling of "eureka" once more, provided again that discovering it is not too easy. If it is very easy, or if there are no deeper layers to be discovered, the aesthetic pleasure remains brief and thus meager, and the work of art risks being classified as kitsch.

The perception of a profound work of art proceeds thus as several (or at least two) step-by-step phases. Each successive stage of comprehension should optimally be attainable so that the flow of new information remains always in the range of 100 bits per second, i.e. near the maximum of human abilities of perception. The deeper content can be a background structure, or anything else that arouses interest, for example an invitation to an emotional mood, or a message that the observer can apply to his or her own life. The contents on the different levels need not necessarily have any relevance with each other - the only important thing is that each of them must be interesting to the observer.

The most rewarding work of art is one in which the process described above can take place several times successively like in the figure on the right. Such a multi-faceted work of art can be looked at over and over again. In each new vista the observer finds something new; first perhaps a solution to a problem which remained unsolved in the previous phase of observation, and second, a novel surprise: another problem motivating him to a deeper still reflection. Each phase of observation leads to more profound comprehension and thus increases the aesthetic value of the work.

The procedure of gradual aesthetic comprehension is a little different for the two existing genres of art:

In synchronic objects all the parts are visible all the time, but it does not mean that the author of the work has no means to guide the process of its study. The procedure of studying an immobile object can be more or less fixed in advance, for example, with a menu system. Similarly, esteeming the architecture of a large building usually involves a promenade in the building which the architect can pre-design so that the public has the possibility to enjoy surprises and "a-hah" experiences.

Moreover, a common method for pointing out a suitable starting point for the user's inspection is to give conspicuous emphasis to such an element, or to provide a detail or characteristic that differs from what is normal in the genre of objects (i.e. a "contra-standard" characteristic) which arouses the curiosity of the spectator and invites him to take a closer look.

In diachronic works several different tactics (which sometimes can be used in synchronic works, too) are available for arousing and keeping the interest of the public. They include the following:

Expectation and Distinction

In some fields of art the content of a work of art is largely known to the public in advance. If you, for example, buy a ticket to a Chopin recital, you expect that the pianist plays the well-known pieces approximately according to the notes; if there are too many deviations you will have the feeling of being deceived.

What happens if everything is played exactly as it is printed in the notes? It could be made with a high-class electric piano so that, for example, each 1/4 sound in a 3/4 bar has exactly the same duration and the volume is adjusted according to the composer's instructions p, pp, f etc. The resulting aesthetic experience would probably remain bleak. There would be no "life" or "swing" in the presentation. The public perhaps would not complain, but they would not recommend the presentation to their neighbors.

In other arts notes are not used, and even for music many listeners do not know the notes of the music they hear. In any case, each member of the the public of any work of art has very often an expectation, in other words they expect something of the work. The very incentive of the public for coming to see or hear a work of art is nearly always that they want to see or hear something that they can anticipate on the basis of their earlier experience about art. Often it is simply a reminiscence of an exemplar, i.e. an admirable work of art that they have seen or heard. In arts that depict something, the expectation is often dictated by the motif. For people that are in the habit of analyzing objects of art, the expectation could be a combination of standard properties that they have found to be characteristic of the genre in question, and it is then based on knowledge about the other works that have been and are now being produced in the field of art in question. Bourdieu (1994, 63) explains such an expectation of a connoisseur as follows:

According to the logic of a strongly autonomous field of [social] activity, the spectator of a work of art has to note the distinction, the difference to other contemporaneous or earlier works. ... Enjoying a work of art requires knowing the space of possibilities that the work results from, discerning the "augmentation" that the work is giving which can be seen only through a historical comparison.

When a member of the public then observes a work of art, his or her impression of the work seldom corresponds to the expectation exactly. We can call distinction (or originality) the difference between expectation and the completed perception of a given work of art. The direction and amount of distinction designates the aesthetic experience as follows:

An artist who wants to get renown thus has to create a work that gives the public something that it could not expect. He or she has to deviate from earlier works, but only to a suitable extent. The cognitive mechanism of aesthetic pleasure gives thus an explanation for the continual quest for progress in arts, too.

It goes without saying that experts and professionals of any field of art have much higher and much more detailed expectations than laymen have. The more works of art the expert knows, the less he is interested in such features that are typical of the conventional style generally applied in the field. He passes these points as self-evident facts, and they do not give him any aesthetic pleasure. These different expectations explain the different receptions that a work of art sometimes gets from the general public on the one hand, and from "avant-garde" on the other. The general public may, for example, feel that a given work of art differs from expectations in a suitable way, whereas the avant-garde feels that it contains nothing of special interest and corresponds to what is normally expected from the genre, and is thus "déjà vu" if not kitsch.

Supplementary sources of interest in products

Traditionally aesthetics has been restricted to the realms of the senses of vision and of hearing. This limitation is regrettable, because these are only two of several human channels of perception.

Especially the senses of touch and movement can be important when evaluating e.g. sports equipment, vehicles, clothing and furniture. The senses of taste and smell are traditionally the domain of culinary art, but there might be situations when they, and other simple corporeal urges could be included in the experience of other types of products, too. On the page Evaluating Normative Proposals we have a discussion of the numerous aspects of attractiveness, or "pleasurability" of products.

Moreover, there are a few emotional sources of pleasure that can arouse interest in a product or in a work of art. Of these, sexuality has traditionally been a customary element in those arts that can depict man and his life. In the process of perceiving the work, sexual content is best adapted for the initial phases of observation. Sexual hints provide points of interest that can motivate the public into closer inspection of the work, during which its other content then will eventually reveal itself, as explained by Moles (1966), above. Because sexuality is one of the first characteristics to be noted in the product, it is often important in the marketing situation. Makers of kitsch are well aware of the fact.

Other cognitive and emotional sources of pleasure that are innate for a human and that could be used to enhance the interest in a product, include:

Normative Theory of Beauty

The above discussed traditions in the study of art have been mainly descriptive in nature. However, the prefaces of study reports often announce that the author's final goal has been normative, i.e. to help later artisans, architects etc. to create more attractive works. Note also that many authors were occupied as teachers in art schools and they were thus willing and able to guide the artistic creation of their colleagues and students.

At first sight there seems to be no great difference between descriptive and normative study of beautiful products, because aesthetics has traditionally been concentrated on the most beautiful objects and the normative goal in new production is the same. Researchers of aesthetics have traditionally selected as their objects of study such products that were regarded as exceptionally beautiful, i.e. renowned works of art, which can make it difficult to apply the findings to the creation of more commonplace products, see a discussion on the alternatives when demarcating the Population of Study.

The situation gets more complicated if we accept the fact that different segments of the general public can have different tastes, and we want to please more than one of these tastes. This could be done in several ways. One approach could be first defining the target customers and then creating one product exactly for these people, and perhaps other products for other groups. Alternatives to this could be, either finding an arbitrated compromise product that would please the majority, or perhaps making a "double-coded" work so that two (or more) different levels of public could find different sources of satisfaction in it.

In the normative study of art, a frequently applied model can be seen here on the right. It includes the term feedback, borrowed from the theory of cybernetics, which is an important factor in the creation of works of art, and which appears in the form of criticism. The figure has been borrowed, slightly modified, from Herbert Franke.

The greater number of benefits we wish to attain, the greater is the risk that some of the targets get into conflict with each other. Note that beside the pleasures listed above, there are many practical objectives that a product is supposed to reach (like usability, economy and ecology), and each of these targets can obstruct reaching some other goals. It is difficult to develop general theory for the task of arbitrating between goals in conflict, even if such a need arises frequently in a development project for a specific product, cf. Strategic Design, the methods of creating a Product Concept and Evaluating a Design Proposal.

Research Methods

During many centuries beauty and especially the beauty of products has been studied from many different angles. Each of these lines of research has reached deeper and deeper insights, but in spite of that every explanation of beauty has remained deficient: it lacks at least the other well known angles, and probably something else that no researcher has ever thought of. It seems that 'beauty' is a name that has been given to several concepts which we can study one at a time, but no one has yet been able to combine them into one comprehensive theory. Time will show if future researchers will succeed better in this respect.

A common weakness in the study of beauty has been that the researcher has developed his assertions just on the basis of his personal and subjective competence (which often was admirable, because many authors also were qualified artists). Few assertions were ever tested with other people; in the best case they were tested in the works of art created by the author himself. This lack of corroboration not only diminished the credibility of the studies but it also was one reason why these studies had weak connections to each other and no general theory of beauty ever developed. Nevertheless, it is possible that this weakness of methods can eventually be corrected (see Diachronic View on Arteology).

The first researchers of beauty thought that the essence of beauty is the same everywhere and for everyone. It seemed unnecessary to consult many people when studying it, because already the researcher himself is a human being and his opinions about beauty could be comfortably recorded with solitary contemplation in an arm chair. The normal method in descriptive studies of beauty until 19 century was probably somewhat similar to the modern method of phenomenology or perhaps hermeneutics.

Today it is only the most obstinate existentialists who still assert that their findings will be valid anywhere, while other people think that they are unquestionably valid only in the author's sphere of culture. Of course, there is always the possibility that phenomenological findings happen to have wider validity as well, therefore if you like the method you can well use it and publish the results as hypotheses to be tested by others.

A more reliable method for exploring the mechanisms and patterns in the perception of beauty by different people in different countries, is empirical study in co-operation with these people. You will first need to define the group of people that you wish to study.

In the study of aesthetic experience it is important to note that the experience depends not only on the work of art itself but as much on the expectations that each member of the public had originally. For collecting these, a suitable method is survey with thematic interview. Its normal alternative, a poll is not suitable because people's artistic expectations are usually too vague to be expressed in definite questions and answers. Possible questions for mapping out a person's expectations could be: "When coming to see my exhibition, what did you expect to see?" and "Could you compare my work to some other similar works of art that you have seen?"

If you can construct a hypothesis for your study, you can consider testing it with experiments in laboratory, for example by preparing variations of a suitable work of art to be used as stimuli in the experiment. You can make these variations so that they differ only with regard to one variable, and the experiment will then reveal which effect the variation has to the aesthetic experience, see Stimulus in the experiment. Remember here, too, that all such experiments always involve one more important variable: the different expectations of the public, which you should not forget to include when registering people's reactions to the variable objects of art.

You can, of course, take as your object of study the existing works or products themselves, though the difficulty is often their great variation. When studying the beauty of products that are used for practical purposes, it can be difficult to eliminate the non-aesthetic aspects of the object. Most people think that preferences concerning beautiful form depend of the type of the object. A beautiful fishing boat is different from a beautiful racer. Moreover, many people perceive as beauty various qualities of the product, for example its accord with tradition, the quality of workmanship, or good usability.

When the purpose of the study is normative, i.e. if you want to assist the design of new products, the approach becomes slightly different depending on whether you want to create general design theory, i.e. models, standards and other tools for design, or if you just wish to develop one new product (or a series of them). Suitable methods for the latter task are explained in Developing Art With Scientific Methods and Developing an Industrial Product.

The methods for creating general design theory are discussed in Preparing Design Theory. Many of the descriptive methods listed above are also serviceable. The researcher's proposals for design guidelines should always be tested with a sample selected from the target group of customers.

When developing theory of design it is important to test not only written guidelines but also as fidel mock-ups as possible. Suitable methods are listed in Presenting the Draft and Prototype and Evaluating a Design Proposal. Do not forget to include in the testing group people with impaired abilities of perception.

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August 3, 2007.
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Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi