The term “beauty” has been one of conflict in the design community for some time. Good designers take pride in their argument that function takes precedent over form, that design is logical, calculated and precise. It is informed by fact, is inspired by a business problem, and those aesthetically-pleasing qualities often come naturally.
So where does beauty for beauty’s sake fit in? When is it okay to embellish functioning design to make it prettier? Stefan Sagmeister, renowned designer and creative lead at New York’s Sagmeister + Walsh, recently visited Chicago to talk about beauty and its place in design, debunking the myth that designers can’t sell beauty in their work.
I’ll start by saying I’ve followed Sagmeister for quite some time. I’ve admired his advertising genius, his storytelling and his Austrian accent since college. So needless to say, when I caught wind of his free talk at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was elated.
After a glowing introduction, Sagmeister took the stage and began by defining the term “beauty” and discussing the strange relationship designers have developed with the term. A look back at art history unearths an understanding of our innate appreciation for ornate details, status symbols and decoration, but also how - over time - designers stripped these elements away for economic reasons as well as in favor of modern design principals.
In particular, Sagmeister used architectural design triumphs and shortcomings to illustrate this development. He recognized the successes of modern mid-century, brutalist architects like Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, but also challenged some the work for being ugly and uninspired.
He wasn’t saying the work was bad, but that when applied at such a grand scale as the International Style was, it’s disappointing and illogical. Influential designers of that era removed beauty and decoration as a valued part of the design process, which proceeded to transcend design theory and teachings for years to come. Sagmeister, on the other hand, believes beauty to be a fundamental component of function rather than one of just form (more on that later).
A fundamental flaw in the “anti-beauty for the sake of beauty” argument is that beauty itself is subjective. To support his argument that beauty isn’t as subjective as so many think, Sagmeister put several images on the screen, one at a time. One featured a series of basic colors; brown, yellow, orange, blue, purple and red. Others were of shapes; a square, a circle, a polygon, a curvy organic form. And with each set of visuals, asked the audience which they thought to be the most beautiful. The results were impressive.
With each example, almost everyone in the 900-seat auditorium agreed on the answer. Sure, there were a few rebels that decided they found brown to be the most beautiful, but most responded that blue was the most beautiful. Similar results were received regarding the circle. These simple exercises, along with numerous psychological studies that Sagmeister and his peers have conducted, prove that our brains are wired to recognize and appreciate beauty instinctively, rather than subjectively.
Sagmeister validated his argument further by telling a story in which one of his peers, a psychologist, asked Alzheimer’s patients to arrange a series of cards printed with famous works of art on the front from most beautiful to least beautiful.
Participants almost always ordered them in the same way. Furthermore, he would come back after several weeks, re-introduce himself to the patient - who had no recollection of meeting him before - and conduct the same experiment. Every time, the participants repeated their initial responses, proving once again that there’s a science behind the brain objectively defining beauty.
Beyond these experiments, Sagmeister went on to discuss some more relatable examples of beauty’s influence, like the recently developed New York City High Line. Not so long ago, the abandoned stretch of track was unused and a gritty area. Since the opening of the 1.4 mile park in 2014, the area has undergone multiple revitalization efforts. Real estate development has ensued, tourists have been drawn to the area and astonishingly, little to no criminal activity has taken place.
The efforts of the Friends of the Highline have inspired other cities to develop public spaces like this and, at the end of the day, the success can in large part be attributed to beauty. People appreciate the greenery and views. They spend peaceful moments enjoying a bit of nature’s beauty in the middle of the city.
Sagmeister has seen similar results in some of his projects. These projects include commissions of thoughtful, beautiful murals in urban landscapes that ultimately discourage bad behavior and crime, and conversely attract positive attention.
Each of these examples, experiments and personal experiences led up to Sagmeister’s overarching theme: that beauty is a calculated and necessary aspect of design that can be identified as a component of function and of form, which makes it absolutely necessary in design thought.
Whether that final product be a high rise in the Chicago skyline or the latest packaging design, beauty is valued by humankind and is widely respected, trusted and craved. As a designer myself, I’m moving forward with confidence in my argument for beauty as a support mechanism for the other functions of my work and encourage all of my clients to do the same when it relates to their individual digital efforts.