Part 1: General thoughts on aesthetics

[First in a series of postings about aesthetics and beauty as they pertain to interaction design, and beyond…]


Recently the question was raised on the IxDA discussion list, “does aesthetics matter to interaction design(ers)?” I wholeheartedly say yes as described here. But it’s important to first understand what is meant by the concept of “aesthetics”, as it relates to the design profession at-large.

Commonplace notions of aesthetics tend to focus on purely the surface visual qualities (color, style, shape, effects, etc.) as a matter of sensory stimulation and ornamental differentiation. It’s meant to excite and enthrall and, quite simply, jazz up some fuddy-duddy engineering contraption. This notion is applicable to a web 2.0 website look-and-feel, or the housing for a portable vacuum, or a business stationary logo.

Of course, as designers we often vehemently protest and cringe when someone says all we do is make something “pretty” with surface delights. We know there’s much more to a highly refined aesthetic than mere style and decoration of an engineered contraption, slapped on to appease marketing, etc. At the same time as designers we know that visual (and sensual) beauty matters and can have a defining role in determining a product’s acceptance/usage and shaping the overall quality of engagement.

Gianfranco Zaccai, president/CEO of Design Continuum in Boston, explains aesthetics this way:

Aesthetics in regard to any object, therefore, it not an absolute and separate value. Rather, it is totally related to our ability to see congruence among our intellectual expectations of an object’s functional characteristics, our emotional need to feel that ethical and social values are met, and our physical need for sensory stimulation

Interesting how he identifies three core elements that constitute a sense of aesthetic wholeness. In the original article he paired them with the three psychological elements of self: id, ego, and super ego. In parallel, Don Norman identified three levels of cognitive processing that are shaped by an emotionally powerful design: the visceral, behavioral, and reflective. Ahh, the power of threes!

Zaccai continues further, about designing for our senses and kinesthetics:

To a great extent, many designers have focused their attention on the sense of sight and, to a much lesser extent, the sense of touch. However, human sensory perception includes other organs besides the eyes and the nerve endings at the tips or our fingers. Olfactory and auditory considerations and manipulations should also be a part of the design process. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water and the Alhambra are two examples where the sounds of water and the scents of natural components within the human-made environment are intrinsic to the experience of the architecture.

It seems reasonable that the design of many mass-produced products could benefit from a similar sensitivity. A slide projector, for example, would be immeasurably improved by the elimination of the fan noise. In contrast, the addition of appropriately restful sounds to an alarm clock would potentially help the user in falling asleep, and be less offensive when the time comes to awaken.

The interrelations among all of the sensory perceptions need to be considered in a dynamic way. Concerns for the kinesthetics associated with the actual use of an object add a new dimension to the design process.

So what can we make of this? A few major points:

** Aesthetics has to do with the entirety of human senses and intellect, in a cumulative, integral fashion. Design aesthetics must respect the value of our basic human desire for pleasure and satisfaction and fulfillment.
>> See Patrick Jordan, Designing Pleasurable Products

** Aesthetics is a multi-sensory concept, encompassing visual, audio, smell, taste, and tactility. True “experience design” should embody all these together, in the staging of a dramatic, experiential performance crafted to address each sense in a cooperative fashion, where each sense feeds off the other, and reinforces the overall impact. Best example of this: Disney Imagineering. Also, “dinner theater” events, Cirque Du Soleil, branded environments (Rainforest Cafe, NikeTown, Virgin Atlantic, Cunard Cruises), W Hotels, Apple Store.
>> See Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses
>> Also Brenda Laurel’s Computers as Theatre

** Aesthetics involves multiple insights on human psychology (cognition), emotional response (affect), sensual stimulation (biology, kinesthetics, physics, chemistry), and rational logical thought (engineering, logic). These three map to (surprise!) the core elements that constitute a well-formed, balanced rhetorical argument: pathos, ethos, logos.

As Zaccai himself says, the great designers are those that believe in the totality of aesthetics and cultivate that sense in their process by whatever means and tools. In the end, aesthetics has to do with respecting core human senses and values. Thus, aesthetics has absolutely everything to do with designing interactions and user experiences.


Gianfranco Zaccai, “Art and Technology”, from Discovering Design: Explorations in Design Studies


Part 1: General thoughts on design aesthetics

Part 2: Interpretations of beauty as a value of user experience

Part 3: Towards an integrative aesthetic experience

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