The Price of Beauty

Brands that have well designed products often come under fire from people who claim that buyers of such things are wasting money by spending more on something that is not more useful, merely better looking. The logic goes that because you’re not getting additional functionality, you’re being tricked into a higher price tag by a sleek appearance, just like a mouse is lured into a mouse trap with the enticing smell of a piece of cheese.

This stance is interesting to me because it assumes that you’re not supposed to pay for good design, and by following this out, that good design, or at the very least, attractive design, is worthless. I’ll assume the distinction is important and that good design overall is desired since it has a direct impact on the function of a good. What about appearance though, does an attractive appearance alone justify a higher cost?

The answer can be reached by asking another question: does the look of a thing have any effect on our mood? This will vary from person to person, but unless you are completely insensitive, the appearance of an object will have some effect, which can be either positive or negative. It follows then, that if we use beautiful objects, we experience an elevation in our mood, which means that those objects have a utility beyond their primary function, and so those who value their state of mind will readily pay more for a design that is pleasing to their eye.

I imagine two objections to this. The first is that some goods are designed for entertainment, while others are merely tools, and so don’t deserve a better visual treatment. While the distinction between a product for pleasure and a product for work can be made, what we’ve had in the previous paragraph still stands: the better appearance will not suddenly cease to give us pleasure simply because the context of use has changed. It will work just the same way.

It is possible that the amount of pleasure we receive is lessened through the distraction of the task at hand. The extent to which the pleasure we receive from the object’s beauty is impaired by the context in which it is used dictates the amount of aesthetic treatment it requires, which I wrote about in a previous post. This, however, is a principle of good design, not a reason against paying a higher price for a nicer looking good. One exception to this is the case where no pleasure at all is received from the product’s appearance in the context of its use, though I’m not certain that such an extreme case is ever possible.

The second objection may be that while the appearance of a product does give us pleasure and elevate our mood, the gains are far too small to justify the higher price tag. The answer to this is that it is a question of sensibility. If the person buys the more attractive product, it follows that they are sensible enough to its beauty, and so desire it enough to want to have it around them. If a person does not appreciate the look of a design that many others do, then it is more a reflection on them as insensitive individuals than on the buyers as fools lured into a trap.

The appearance of the products we use colors the experiences of our everyday life. Choosing to surround ourselves with beautiful objects is a conscious decision to influence our experiences in a positive way. Walter Crane, one of the disciples of William Morris, said it well by noting that “cheapness as a rule … can only be obtained at the cost of the … cheapening of human life and labour”1. In the end you get what you pay for, not merely in terms of what the product will do for you, but in the sort of experience you’ll have of using it. Cheap design cheapens human life.

  1. Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, Catalogue of the third exhibition. London, 1890, p. 8, in Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design, Penguin Books, 1991
August 2012