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May 2, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Aesthetics in

When everything is designed for the consumer, how do we manage to get such ugly things?

Why do all of the new cellphones seem to come in a particularly garish pink? Well, it seems obvious the moment you think about it but even the most aesthetic of items, such as a painting, has to conform to some basic principles. Designers have to take a lot into consideration, and are the only ones who can make tough choices between how functional, and how attractive, an item is.

When designing, many different issues are taken into consideration, depending on why the product is being designed, who it is for, even the structure of the organisation designing it. Cost becomes a very important factor, and something which the designer has little control over. For example, to design a cellphone, a designer may be given an idea of which features it must include (text messaging, a camera, etc.), and how it should look (for example, “we want the thinnest cellphone on the market”). A designer takes all of the specifications given by the company who want the design, and comes up with, say, a cellphone which does absolutely everything the company has asked for.

It is the thinnest cellphone on the market, with all of the usual features required. But to be that thin, the cellphone requires certain expensive components. If the company is unable to make the cellphone as cheaply as budgeted, they will simply go back to the designer and tell them to “make it cheaper.” Something has to give—the cellphone may break easily, or be a bit thicker than it could be. The keypad may have to downgrade to a cheaper, uglier version. If a designer works within a company, they are simply given the specifications, and have to make it work. Unfair? Perhaps.

A problem many fail to see with respect to the design industry is just how much of a hand everyone else has in a design. One must design for someone else—very few designers do something of their own volition purely for themselves. So even on the most basic level, one must design for a client. That’s two different viewpoints, understandings and opinions. The client knows what they want to use something for, perhaps has an idea of how it should look, and has intimate motivations for getting the product. They have to be able to effectively communicate all of these motivations, needs and desires to the designer. The designer then has to apply their technical knowledge and ability to those needs, and see what they come up with. They will have to explain why a toilet can’t literally be made from gold, or why a rooftop can’t be a certain shape, and use that knowledge to suggest the best possible alternative to the client.

Added to the existing needs of the designer and client, often the client will be selling the item designed. The client thus needs to know their target market’s motivations to purchase items. Are they providing an essential item? Will they need to convince the market they need the item? Is it a niche market, or do they need to best the competition somehow? The clients, supposedly, will have done their research and have an idea of the priorities of their target market.

A target market is a beautiful thing if understood well. Designers are taught not to appeal to everyone, but rather maximise the possibilities of who a product will appeal to. A basic example here would be to design a pair of sneakers with more than one colour option, so the market most likely to buy sneakers is more likely to find that particular design aesthetically appealing. If one were to design formal dress shoes, however, making them available in more than one colour is unlikely to maximise appeal, as most people purchasing dress shoes will want them in black. Target markets can aid the client in having a more specific idea of what is needed from a product, and the priority level of each requirement, but this is only useful when the client talks this through with the designer! Furthermore, the needs of the target market may contradict the values or needs of the client themselves- if a client is dead set on producing eco-friendly clothing for male teenagers, they will have to accept that the market (number of people likely to purchase their product) is a small one. Design is a minefield!

So, between the multiple chefs in the kitchen, the designer is responsible simply for making the food. The designer does not have to ensure the food is appealing. The designer does not have to make a great selling soup. The designer doesn’t even have to ensure that the soup will still be hot when it reaches the table. The designer just has to make a soup that their boss, the restaurant owner, is happy with. In theory, the restaurant owner is happy when customers are happy. (But in practise, the restaurant owner may realise pineapple flavoured soup was a bad choice long after the customers spit it out, and blame the designer.) Is this why my cellphone is a garish pink, and Te Papa looks like a squashed robot bug? Not quite.

What we find attractive or unattractive is very subjective. Walking past the Bucket Fountain, you may see a monument to the creativity to Wellington, I may see a vomit-filled, badly painted eyesore. Looking at tattoos, you may see a permanent symbol of lunacy, and I may see a beautiful expression of love for Elmo. Beauty is subjective and designers exploit that subjectivity in a detailed, sociologically fascinating way.

Beauty has been defined by a number of principles since the beginning of time. One such principle is ethics—if an object is ethical, it is beautiful, and vice versa. A sustainably made, fair trade, organic cotton tshirt has a sense of beauty which we ‘see’ regardless of its actual appearance. Anne Galloway, a lecturer at Vic’s Design School, is currently exploring how certain technologies can help consumers see the origin and story of materials used in products, a move which would, for one, endear consumers more to the products.

The outcome of such study is not that clients understand consumers better, but rather that more consumers may begin supporting concepts such as fair trade, because they are better able to understand what such concepts entail.

In a similar way, Meredith Yayanos, Editor- in-Chief of Coilhouse Magazine, notes that the aesthetics of her magazine are considered holistically, as opposed to just nice words and pretty pictures. Beauty is considered from beginning to end, from paper cut and quality (they round the edges and use high quality paper), to order of content, number of pages, and even the costly decision to move from a blog to physical magazine. “Words and images in print just feel good between your fingertips.” Coilhouse are able to take this approach as money is not their primary motivator; so the editors are less concerned with appealing to the masses, and thus rarely compromise their vision. It is this lack of compromise and holistic approach to creating a magazine enjoyed on aesthetic, sensory, and intellectual levels which makes the magazine so seemingly beautiful.

What do we mean when we say something is beautiful? Beauty is an emotionally loaded concept. Situations, emotions, tastes and people can be beautiful. Newborn babies are rarely attractive- but they’re beautiful. Food is beautiful if it tastes and feels good in your mouth, it is likely to seem more so if it is well presented. Actions properly done are referred to as beautiful. Beauty is such a loaded concept that aiming for beauty in design is less about how something looks, and more about how it makes you feel.

There are some fast and easy techniques designers use to keep their products as appealing as possible, for example symmetry, contrast, flow (leading the eye across the surface), scale (making sure components don’t dwarf one another), and unity. Some techniques, however, are fast and easy ways to make the product appeal to a different market. For instance, simplifying colours so the item appeals to children, or adding a QWERTY keyboard to a cellphone so it looks more like a more expensive PDA. Techniques which don’t necessarily add value, but appeal to certain parts of society, enables designers to create items which really appeal to some people, but not at all to others.

Technology, most specifically, is highly valued for its ease of use. Google and the Apple iPod are two technologies which have summoned phenomenal success, in part owing to their simple, clean interface. Neither of the technologies is substantially easier to use than its competitors—the quality of one’s hits on Google is still based in the user’s ability to pick key words, and the iPod has an initially quite confusing keypad—but they appear quite simple, and this simplicity is attractive. Few consider how pretty the Google site is, but its appeal owing to simplicity is obvious.

In a similar vein, anything fit for its purpose has a beauty or irresistability. The classic 2B pencil which we have to sharpen manually, for instance. Te Papa largely looks the way it does because while natural light was preferable, direct sunlight would harm the exhibits. As a result, Te Papa was designed with a large number of windows, but the entire shape of the building was developed to ensure that no sun enters the building, year-round. In this way, Te Papa is an absolute architectural feat, and lauded by many. But, importantly, most of us don’t understand the reasons why Te Papa looks like it does, and many couldn’t care. To us, Te Papa is just one ugly building. The response, of course, is that the various national treasures which Te Papa houses are safe from environmental damage—which is more important.

So, in sum, designing for attractive-ness’ sake is a lot harder than one would think. Notions of beauty are varied, and ensuring an object is fit for purpose is much more important than whether it looks good while doing so. The only way around it is hiring your own designer and beating them mercilessly around the head for failing to adequately balance beauty and utility—something the Vic Design School has assured me won’t
end well.

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