Today is Monday the 20th of April, 2020. I am currently sitting in front of my workspace at home, where I spent the most time of the last month due to the curfew. I am sure that this new situation for many people created some time to reflect on theirselves and to think about life. For my part, I used some leisure time wisely to invest in research on topics I was interested in for a long time already. One of these topics is beauty. As a designer this subject is something, I come face to face with all the time. As a designer I often find myself reflecting on my own consumer behavior just to think about, why I buy/like certain products over their competitors. Sometimes I come to the conclusion that I like things, that are probably considered to be rather mainstream, but sometimes I feel like I am the only person on the planet who can see the beauty in certain things. But what is this beauty, that influences most of the decisions we make in our lives, why do we even perceive something as beautiful and why does it matter at all?
Another common colloquial expression for beauty is aesthetic. The word aesthetic is derived from the Greek aisthetikos and means perception/sensation. So something that is aesthetic always affects our senses somehow. To be exact: also something that looks horrible is called aesthetic, because something that looks horrible of course implicates a stimuli. Does that mean that horrible equals beautiful?
Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, describes beauty as something that is generally liked by many, even if there isn’t even a concept behind. Beauty in general isn’t something concrete. Due to the fact that aesthetics is a whole branch of philosophy, there are many different approaches and opinions on what defines beauty.
Stefan Sagmeister who is one of the most influential contemporary graphic designers defines beauty as the synergy of different aesthetic values like color, form, material and composition. He often talks about that there are tendencies which of these aesthetic values are considered as beautiful. He makes claims that everywhere on the earth a circle is considered the most beautiful geometrical shape and blue is the most beautiful color. I personally am not really sure that such general statements are that reliable, considering cultural differences occurring from country to country and even from region to region. What Sagmeister also likes to tell is that familiar things are perceived as more beautiful than unfamiliar ones. Many scientists would at least agree with him on that point.
In the 90s two painters made a survey in fourteen different countries all over the world on how a beautiful painting should look like. With the help of the survey findings they created a painting for every of the fourteen countries. The astonishing outcome was that every of the fourteen paintings almost looked like each of the other thirteen ones. Each painting had a blue sky, something that could function as a shelter, something edible and a lake with enough water in it. This experiment leaves the impression that humans only perceive beauty to survive.
Studies show that most people in fact agree on beauty in the nature far more than on beauty in the culture. When you show beautiful landscapes to very different people with very different backgrounds they are very likely to agree on its beauty. Also faces that are considered to be pretty in one country are most likely to be considered to be pretty in other countries. Humans tend to like very symmetric faces and they like faces to be rather pretty masculine or pretty feminine but nothing in between. Considering beauty in culture such as in architecture, art or fashion the similarity in the taste of different people differs massively. Some people really like the impressing sight of a gothic church and others hate how it looks. Some people like the raw and naked look of brutalist buildings made out of concrete and others hate how it looks. Some people really fall in love with the simplicity and functionality bauhaus-inspired architecture offers to them and others think its boring. But why do some people think that it is rather boring than beautiful?
There are some more factors than just the aesthetic ones that decide about how something is perceived. These factors aren’t concerning the specific object, but rather the subject that is watching the specific object. Place, time, culture and ideology are very important factors when judging the beauty of something. For example someone who used to live in Japan some years ago would judge black teeth as very beautiful. When you ask European people today what they think of black teeth, most of them would think about them as gross. Considering bauhaus-inspired architecture reasons why someone might not think of it as beautiful might be that, he/she doesn’t know what Bauhaus was about and so the lack of education is the reason for missing out the beauty of it. Also someone who is very educated and knows about architecture can think that Bauhaus is very boring of course. One simple reason for that might be, that they like other styles of architecture because of their specific taste more.
So it isn’t that simple to give answers on the question what defines beauty. It in fact is easy to answer the question why beauty matters for all of us. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, felt confident about his assumption that the prettier you are, the more success you are capable of having. Every human being has an economic potential, a cultural potential and a social potential. The truth is that people who are pretty are very likely to be associated with other positive properties too. That means that they are perceived to be more trustworthy than others what boosts their social potential enormous. Bourdieu says that social potential can be translated into economic potential – The prettier you are, the more likely you are going to have success in life.
What for me as a designer matters more than my own physical appearance (although it of course matters) is how beauty in our lives affects us. When we see beautiful things our reward center sends dopamine to our brain. So beauty actually makes us feel happy. The complete sacrifice of beauty to keep everything just functional would affect the livability extremely. For me, as stupid as it sounds, beauty is one of the things in life, I always could enjoy, no matter how bad everything else around is going to be. I will always be able to feel happy, when I look at my glass of water and the sun just hits it enough to project wonderful reflections on my beautiful wooden desk. I really believe in beauty and I think every designer should.