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Aesthetics: Enjoy the Ride

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Fundamental pieces of "memory" are embedded from the earliest experience of your ancestors and from your personal experiences collected during the first years of life. These experiences join with the unique composite of your genes to give you an individual perspective of beauty, teach you how to assess and respond, and advise you on how to make decisions based on what you believe to be right or wrong. This chapter will help you remember what you already know.
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You might wonder why the opening section of a design book is called "Memory: Remembering What We Know." Being born through the wisdom of nature, everyone on earth comes into the world equipped with a toolbox of natural abilities. Some of them are physically apparent, and some come to you as if out of the ether. You have a brain that analyzes the world around you and thinks inventively to create what it needs; two hands that are adept at using and making things; an array of senses that gauge, measure, observe, and absorb all that you interact with; and a heart that directs you in what "feels right" for who you are.

Key Concepts

  • Aesthetics are both relevant and necessary to effective design.
  • Intuition is essential to creativity.
  • Synchronicity opens possibilities that may not otherwise exist.
  • Wabi-sabi is an Eastern approach to a natural, unmanaged aesthetic.
  • Grunge is a Western approach to a distressed, manipulated aesthetic.
  • Simplicity is reduction; emptiness is expansion.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the relevance of aesthetics to functional design.
  • Appreciate the relationship of simplicity and emptiness to elegance and multiple-use applications.
  • Use your inherent creative abilities of intuition and synchronicity to support your design's fluency and reach.
  • Appreciate the creative expression inherent in the natural process of a design's evolution in wabi-sabi and grunge.
  • Understand the difference between the concepts of simplicity and emptiness.

Included in your innate inventory are intuitive signposts to help direct the way. Fundamental pieces of "memory" are embedded from the earliest experience of your ancestors and from your personal experiences collected during the first years of life. These experiences join with the unique composite of your genes to give you an individual perspective of beauty, teach you how to assess and respond, and advise you on how to make decisions based on what you believe to be right or wrong. This first chapter focuses on aesthetics, or the appreciation of beauty, and how it is integrated into effective design. This chapter will help you remember what you already know.

Truth and Beauty

  • "Who ever said that pleasure wasn't functional?"
  • —Charles Eames

The appreciation of beauty is universal. There was a time in history when beauty was regarded as the highest evidence of a fundamental truth. If something was sensually pleasing, it was understood to display an intrinsic quality expressed outwardly.

Think of a lovely peach fresh off the tree (Figure 1.1). At the center of this piece of fruit exists all its future generations in the compact form of a pit. The fruit is the short-term nourishment for the incubating seedling or—more likely—becomes nourishment for the lucky animal or human that happens along at the right time to eat it.

Figure 1.1

1.1 The fruit of the peach tree expresses pure goodness in the sensual experience embodied by its look, smell, feel, and taste (opposite). Visual Language, .

The peach is the outward expression of all the future peaches that will be produced if the pit grows into a tree. The essence of the fruit provides direct energy to whoever eats it in the form of nutrition, vitamins, fiber, and sugar energy. All of its benefits are implied in the sensual perception of the fruit: its beautiful color; luxurious, fuzzy feel; delightful sweet scent; and delectable flavor. Everything about it is appealing because it is good for you.

Aesthetics have universal and personal appeal. Most people can agree on a beautiful proportion. But at the same time, one group can consider an item or a style to be beautiful while another is repulsed by it (Figure 1.2). It is not a logical choice, but rather a sense derived of diverse subtleties in personal and cultural experience and preference. Beauty is considered an emergent property—a quality spontaneously generated from within, not created by external decoration or a superficial addition of some sort.

Figure 1.2

1.2 In the eye of the beholder. Primitive to modern cultures have practiced various body modifications to enhance beauty that look quite bizarre to some but are considered beautiful by others: neck stretching (Padaung tribe of Thailand), foot binding (Chinese), and full-body tattooing (Japanese).

Beauty Is as Beauty Does

Murray Gell-Mann, the theoretical physicist who invented the term "quark" for one of the most elementary particles ever identified, sees beauty as a criterion for selecting a correct theory and discovering a universal truth. How do aesthetics support truth? Gell-Mann explains it as an appreciation and recognition of a fundamental property that is carried from the inside out. Like successive layers of an onion, each progressing skin layer contains similarities to the one prior. Similarity brings fluency to information; that is, the ease with which it can be processed and understood.

Isaac Newton used the same idea of common relationships between scales to understand how gravity functions—from why an apple falls to earth to how that same force influences planetary orbits. In Newton's time, the idea of a principle remaining essentially the same from earthly to universal scales was such a radical notion that he felt he would be seen as an "extravagant freak" for the theory in public. This theory of "common scaling" is called self-similarity in scientific terms and has become an active area of theoretical study in recent years. The basis of a theoretical application called complexity theory, self-similarity anticipates megapatterns from initial—or beginning—conditions. Self-similarity is helpful to demonstrate everything from the most effective routes to evacuate thousands of sports stadium fans in the event of a bomb, to how ants find food individually and then cooperate as a single communal system to return it to the nest.

The most elegant discoveries are simple in nature because simplicity is at the heart of the complex. Complexity arises from simplicity: You were the equivalent of a tiny two-dimensional circle once upon a time. In the case of the onion, a fundamental law of similar structure and shape is carried throughout its successive layers. This simple redundancy is displayed elegantly as the same approximate form repeating in different layers, at different scales, or in other dimensions (more on self-similarity and scaling in Chapter 9, "Messaging: A Meaningful Medium").

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