Capacity to Consume Beauty

There are chiefly two types of products: those that deal with pleasure and those that deal with work, and the difference in function naturally leads to a difference in the aesthetic treatment that the product requires. In other words: whether a product is to be used for work or for pleasure will dictate how, and how much, it is styled1, and indeed whether it needs to be styled at all.

The dichotomy is not absolute but gradated, meaning that it is not a question of either having style or not style at all, but of how much. How then, do we decide? We examine the user’s capacity to appreciate beauty in the context that the product is to be used, and that very capacity is what will dictate the amount of aesthetic treatment that a product can afford. Any less and you make a utilitarian good that works well enough but ultimately leaves the soul unsatisfied; any more and you waste your beauty for it will not be appreciated in the context that the good will be used in, or worse, you impede the primary function of the good.

The capacity to appreciate beauty is not only dependent on the context, but also on the user. Certain people will be able to appreciate aesthetic details more than others, which may be due to their disposition, experience and given mood. This means that there is no accurate way of measuring this capacity for the optimal consumption of style. Nevertheless, this capacity can be estimated, and we can do it by looking at the context in which the product is used. Two things matter most: 1) the speed at which the product is consumed and 2) the readiness of the user to enjoy beauty – i.e. whether their mood is for work or for pleasure.

For example, if the user consumes the design in seconds in the course of business, we would be wasting our efforts if we tried to add any aesthetic treatment; for example: signs on roads, train stations and airports, user interfaces of electronic ticket machines and ATMs. Indeed, adding aesthetic treatment to such designs may even impede the function given that fast consumption is of the utmost importance in that particular context. On the other extreme we have products that are consumed slowly for pleasure, and in those cases a beautiful aesthetic treatment only helps to elevate the design because its effect on the mood is part of the function; for example: interior decoration of a restaurant, the design of a cup or the typography of a good hardback.

In the center lie two more combinations: products that are consumed slowly in the context of business, and products that are consumed quickly in the context of pleasure. Both of those cases can afford aesthetic treatment, but that treatment should be limited using the best judgment of the designer according to their estimation of the capacity that the user has for the consumption of said treatment. In other words we have here again our origination proposition: how much style should be used is governed by the extent that it can be enjoyed by the user, which is in turn governed by the user’s emotional state and the time they have to interact with your design. How much business software interfaces are styled or how beautiful food packaging should be depends on our estimation of how much style can contribute to the enjoyment of the product, all the while kept within the limits of ensuring that the primary function is not impeded, i.e. that the interface gloss does not become distracting or that the typography on the packaging is not difficult to read.

  1. I use the words “style” here but what I am talking about is the beautification of the design of a product, that is, an introduction of design elements aimed at making the product more pleasing to the eye, not merely more functional. More cerebrally inclined designers may argue with me that the optimal satisfaction of function leads to the highest beauty, or, put in the words of Oscar Wilde, that the line of strength and beauty being one. While this may be true in some cases, it does not deny that a good execution of style does in fact appeal to the eye, and the question at hand is that of finding the parameters within which style would be best used.
July 2012