Design has been described as a discipline that creates value by matching people’s desires with the technically feasible and the economically viable. The ultimate goal of this effort is to create positive human and business outcomes. To the satisfaction of designers, the world has taken notice. Jerry Kathman, one of the founders of LPK, is fond of saying, “Design is in its ascendancy.” It’s an observation from a respected veteran who has seen a craft, once noted only for people with excellent hand-eye coordination and visual acuity, grow into a profession that now seems to be the answer to every question.
Designers can certainly point with pride to the DMI’s Design Value Index as proof of the value they bring to business. Positive business outcomes: check.
But what about human outcomes? In most design-mature societies, the state of the human condition is in worrying decline. Anxiety and depression are at epidemic levels (the WHO anticipates depression to be the second-most debilitating disease in the developed world by 2025). At the same time, declines in trust and empathy threaten to permanently undermine the basic functions of our society.
“How is it possible that the discipline of design has succeeded so effectively with the business part of its mission, but failed so spectacularly at the human part?”
When I recently posed this question to a non-design friend of mine, she replied, “If design is so influential, could it be that design is the problem?”
I was shocked. Built into every designer’s identity is the notion that the discipline we practice is intrinsically good. Anyone with a brain knows the true culprits responsible for all of our first-world human suffering. Big tech. Venal politicians. Fake news. Social media. Consumer culture.
She just looked at me and deadpanned, “Oh, right, none of them are taking responsibility. Why should you?”
Cue the questions: Does design really bear responsibility for terrible human outcomes? Have we imposed a promise upon design that it simply can’t deliver? Is it simply over-hyped? Are we doing it wrong, or is there a bug in the system? Are we missing something? Does taking the friction out of paying my cable bill really count as a positive human outcome? Does everything need to be lubricated? Who is really benefiting from “human-centered” design?
Am I evil?
I’ll leave that last question to my children, but when considering design, of course it’s not evil. It is, however, worth considering that most of the innovation in design has largely been focused upon the fetishization of business, data and agile ways of making the same mistakes. (That’s another essay.)
In our defense, the briefs we receive are most often framed around a business challenge or growth goal. I would guess that very few designers work on projects with the stated objective to reduce anxiety, mitigate depression, eliminate alienation, soothe despair or restore trust. Moreover, the causes of these problems are extremely diffuse and their instances so widespread, the prospect of tackling them is overwhelming.
So, we can be forgiven for sprinting back to our evermore lean and agile ways of working. Unfortunately, it doesn’t solve the problem. If we don’t believe design is in possession of an evil imperative, it must be lacking in something important. I believe that it is and that the missing imperative is beauty.
“Beauty is actually in the brain of the beholder.”
In Defense of Beauty
Admit it, at the mention of the B-word, your thoughts go to beauty pageants, cosmetic ads, beauty counters and celebrity selfies. It’s vacuous at best and harmful at worst, with associations of low self-esteem and body shaming. It’s skin deep and subjective. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.
Wrong. Beauty is actually in the brain of the beholder. And if it’s in the brain, it can be studied, measured and understood. Over the last decade the field of neuroscience has lifted the veil on our biological relationship to beauty—what it is, its associations with our success as a species, and most importantly how it contributes to our health and well-being. I believe by integrating beauty as a universal consideration, we have an opportunity to take credible steps toward realizing the human half of design’s mission.
So, What Is Beauty?
Before our current neuroscientific obsession with it, the study of beauty was mainly the domain of artists and philosophers. Plato famously considered beauty to be one of three foundational human values: truth, goodness and beauty. He further asserted that the absence of one disqualified the others. For example, in the absence of beauty, something cannot be good or true.
Kant maintained that the persuasive power of beauty lay in the space between sensation and reason. In the presence of beauty, we decide before we’re aware we’ve decided. The thoughts that follow are a post-rationalized story we tell ourselves. The French writer Stendhal referred to it as a resounding yes to life. Even happy-go-lucky Nietzsche identified beauty as the only defense against a life bereft of meaning.
Why go on about these sensitive, skylarking intellectuals? Because generations later, modern science is finally catching up, corroborating their impeccable intuition. Evolutionary biologists now know that beauty is an instinct we are born with—an innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals in response to a certain subset of stimuli. That “certain subset” has come to be known as fitness signals.
“The presence of beauty is a good thing. To our nervous system, it feels like nourishment.”
Fitness signals are the stimuli that tell us whether our surroundings and the people and things within them are fertile, safe and abundant. They take the form of specific proportions and symmetry in plants and animals and in the faces and bodies of humans. In plants and animals, asymmetry usually signals something awry. Color, proportion, sound and music—even the distribution of foliage in a landscape—signals abundance and safety. The philosopher Denis Dutton asserts that a “virtuoso display” of mastery qualifies as a fitness signal, from crafting an arrowhead to swinging a baseball bat to writing the most elegant mathematical equation.
Collectively, the presence of fitness signals gives us an ambient sense that our surroundings are safe and our needs will be met. Our reactions to fitness signals help keep us in our “homeostatic window,” healthy enough to wander and procreate. We’re here because our ancestors found these signals really attractive. You might even say, beautiful. The ones that didn’t, well, we’ll leave them to the paleontologists.
So, the presence of beauty is a good thing. To our nervous system, it feels like nourishment. In fact, staring at the fractal geometry of an acacia tree has been found to lower the human stress response. Unfortunately, the absence of beauty has the opposite effect. Prolonged exposure to environments lacking beauty produces a very measurable fight-or-flight stress response. Over time, this response can do permanent neurological damage. Alarmingly, some of this damage has been found to be epigenetic, meaning it can be passed on to the next generation. Kalle Lasn, the magazine editor and activist, coined the term “soul shock” to describe this phenomenon in its modern context.
Seen in this light, beauty is far from superfluous. It is fundamental to what it means to be human. As a designer, I now believe it is fundamental to good design. As Plato might say: for design to be good, it must be beautiful.
How many of today’s design practitioners would feel comfortable uttering those words, especially in professional company. Not many. I felt uncomfortable tapping them into this laptop! Why?
Beauty’s Fall from Grace
A year ago, I visited a car collection in Naples, Florida. Part of the collection included an exhibit entitled The Accoutrements of Motoring. Among the goggles, scarves and roadmaps was a bottle of motor oil whose beauty surpassed that of the most opulent cognac or exclusive fragrance.
I imagined a designer in 1914, given the task of designing a container of motor oil. Whether by demand from their boss, client or cultural imperative, they felt compelled to make something intended to contain foul engine lubricant a thing of beauty. I was struck by the notion that the human necessity to design had been married with the desire to design beautifully, to adorn (adore… adorn).
Stone axes, cave paintings, aqueducts, steam engine controls, gramophones—all blended function and beauty by designers who never questioned the value of either. Obviously, that imperative has since evaporated.
It’s possible that the oil container I experienced in a Naples, Florida museum was one of the last to enjoy the attention of a designer driven by the imperative of beauty. Something changed. It wasn’t simply a mercurial change in cultural standards. It was a war.