Mikkelsen, M.K. (2019) ‘My Quest for Beauty’ in ‘What’s the Matter? – New Pathways for Material-Based Learning and Knowledge Development in Design’ Report on artistic research project. Kolding School of Design
I love that shoe
I am blown away. Do you know that feeling? To be emotionally moved by a product? That a specific product seduces you, and you are not exactly sure why? As if you sense this particular product more intensely than other similar products. Have you ever asked yourself what it is about this precise product that gets under your skin and affects you so deeply that you might even have to own it at any price? Maybe the only answer you can find is this: the shoe is just so beautiful. But what is it that makes this exact shoe so beautiful? And is it only you who thinks so? You are almost certainly not the only person who experienced the beauty of this shoe. But on the other hand, probably not everyone in the world would think that this particular shoe is immeasurably desirable. So, what is beautiful and what is ugly, and why do we not all experience the same?
If these questions make you want to keep reading, you are probably a designer and you are probably waiting in suspense for me to give you the answers. After all, if you could hold the key to what touches people so profoundly, it would be a relatively simple task to create products that are exclusively wonderful that your company could sell, and you would become a great success. But I am not going to give you any answers. Instead, I give you more questions. Because I want you out of that comfortable chair and I want you to engage in a discussion with me. In the following I will write in a bold essayistic style to explore and attempt to pin down the notion of beauty.
So, what does it mean that something is beautiful? How much of the experience of beauty is subjective and how much is objective? If the experience is completely subjective, does that mean we should not deal with it and let it remain subjective? No, I want to shout. No, because we have to talk about the seductive elements of design. It may well be that the aesthetic expression of design products is something we (just) sense as a non-verbal language. But that does not mean we should not talk about it. It may be difficult, because it requires us to transform something non-verbal into words. Being able to perceive a product and transform this perception into a sense of passion, love, sadness, drama and so on is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the designer’s greatest abilities. And it is this ability we use when we design meaningful products. This is a basic, tacit knowledge that we must articulate in words in order for it to grow. Like other abilities, this ability must be nurtured and challenged so that it can develop and become strong. Imagine, for a moment, the consequences of not cultivating and growing this ability in the designer. Can you picture a future where the designer can only design shoes captured as a concept on post-it notes?
The beautiful material strategy
A shoe can be divided it into different designed elements. First of all, the shoe has a function. On top of this, it also has an expression. Function and expression. As part of the shoe’s expression, the designer has worked with both form and material. Let us dive into the domain of materials for a second. What significance do material choices have for the notion of beauty that I touched on in the previous paragraph? I can repeat my questions here: what makes a material composition beautiful, delicious, exquisite? How do we perceive and interpret materials when they are composed in a final product? And can we just assume that what I as a designer perceive and interpret is also what my future user will perceive and interpret? Does he understand the narrative as I understand it?
In the above I used the word ‘expression’ about the way the product appears with its form, colour and material. In a casual conversation, I might carelessly have talked about it as the product’s aesthetic expression. But the word ‘aesthetic’ tends to confuse people because it has had so many different connotations over the years. However, to dive deeper into the study of when we perceive a material strategy as beautiful, I venture out to talk about aesthetics with the enthusiasm and audacity of a design practitioner. I will introduce to you four practical and designer-like ways of looking at aesthetics, all of which are present when we relate to a design. It is albeit aesthetic in a somewhat rewritten version than how it has been formulated historically. I call these four aesthetic approaches Harmony, Trend, Sensation and Experience.
One of the earliest conceptions of beauty is as a common ideal of beauty we all strive for. In Antiquity, beauty was imbedded in the object. It was therefore objective and detached from the observer. When Aristotle defines beauty, it is precisely on the idea that beauty is a divine ideal that man can approach with harmonies in rhythms and proportions. Aristotle introduces us to beauty as something opposite from ugliness and states in his text Poetics that “to be beautiful… every whole made up of parts, must… present a certain order in its arrangement of parts” (1). Thus, the belief is that people share a common, objective beauty ideal that can be achieved by arranging elements in a certain way. Can we agree on a common beauty ideal today? Hardly. But although I claim to be a postmodernist and as such have broken with the ideals of modernism and the dogmatic approach to design that it represents, I nevertheless repeatedly seek answers and inspiration from great thinkers’ notions of harmony. I call them harmonies here, because they were formulated in that belief. This applies to form and composition both, where The Golden Section and Fibbonaci are still used as mathematical laws of proportion to create, understand and talk about form (2). The same can be seen in the field of colour with Goethe’s instructions of ideal distributions of colour quantities as well as Johannes Itten’s (3) and Josef Alber’s (4) work with how the colours harmonically influence each other. I love the idea of harmonies formulated as laws. It gives me a language for discussing what I see. Whether I interpret these historical laws of harmony as ideal or true, I will return to in a moment.
I would like to turn our attention to trends and taste preferences that dominate at different times. Trends can be described as an expression of a common assessment of something as being preferable to something else. If we stay on the subject of shoes, we can take the classic Dr. Martens boot. At a presentation at ECCO earlier this year, one-third of the designers and students present were wearing Dr. Martens boots. It must be said to be an expression of a fairly significant trend among designers. I am not part of that trend; I wore Dr. Martens boots in the 1990s. That was enough for me. So, I am positioned outside the community of this shared preference. Nevertheless, here I will sneak in a remark about aesthetics again and use trends as another bid for understanding beauty. Immanuel Kant describes aesthetics as good taste; as the ability to intuitively distinguish between the beautiful and the ugly (5). In the context of the Dr. Martens boots, not all of us, but exactly one-third of the designers present that day, share a common beauty ideal or has the good taste. Today, we can hardly say that all mankind has a common understanding of ‘the beautiful’ but it occurs in groups of people. In smaller groups, trends emerge as collective beauty ideals. Kant’s good taste becomes a collective taste. For the designer who put on his Dr. Martens boots that morning in Tønder, it was precisely the ability to distinguish between the beautiful and the ugly within his group that was guiding him to make that decision. He knew the good taste of the group.
Maybe your group has some of the aforementioned harmonies as their ideal. After all, I promised to return to them. If you perceive regularity and order as beautiful, is that then not proof that the harmonies mentioned above are actual laws? Or perhaps just a taste? A trend in your group? Maybe you experience it completely the other way around; that some chaos and disharmony is needed to create life and thus beauty?
The third element I would like to introduce in connection with aesthetics is Sensation. The original Greek word ‘aisthesis’ means exactly that: sensation. Understanding aesthetics as sensation is akin to phenomenology, which is about sensing and describing phenomena. With this understanding, we can consider any designed expression as an aesthetic expression, regardless of whether we think of it as beautiful or ugly. We see the colour of the leather. With our fingertips we feel the leather’s smooth surface with small cracks after many bends. We hear how the leather squeaks as the shoe moves. We can smell the leather and the many layers of leather grease. And if we dare take it in our mouth, we can also taste the juice from both leather and grease. We sense the material; thus, it gives us an aesthetic experience. Merleau-Ponty says about phenomenology that the purpose is not to capture absolute truths but to learn to see the world again (6). He also argues that senses must be renewed not to create blindness. In other words; if we have the same sensory impressions all the time, we become used to them and blind to what they offer us. But with a little awareness, we can have an aesthetic experience of even the most mundane things, if we are physically present and involved in the world. The contemporary design theorist Patrick Jordan proposes, in parallel to this, a new way of approaching design. Instead of a functionality approach or a usability approach, he introduces a pleasure approach to design (7). The first layer of this approach he calls Physio-pleasure, which relates to the body and pleasures derived from sensory organs. So, he articulates that the design must include the sensory qualities to give you pleasure. This is something a concept on a post-it note cannot do!
When evaluating if we think something is beautiful or not, we have several options for doing so. Based on the above we can use the laws of harmonies. Or we can base the judgement on our own sensual pleasure; the soft towel in the spa or the smooth leather on the new headphones that just feel like a tender touch of the ears. Or we can use the beauty ideal of our group. The fourth and very important element is our individual, lived experience. Here I will return to the story about the Dr. Martens boots. When I can say with certainty today that I will never wear Dr. Martens boots again, it is precisely because of my lived experience. You could say I have worn them up, I am done with them, they belonged to a time when I played in a rock band with young boys and hid beers under my clothes. So, when I see the boots today, I call on my past experiences and interpret the boots based on that. Contrary to Antiquity’s definition of beauty as something objective found in the object, beauty here is understood as something subjective created in the person who perceives the object. Philosopher and psychologist Gregory states about perception that it is a hypothesis we make based on our past experiences (8). This way we already have a fixed interpretation of the world, almost before we experience it. The thing about our individual experience is a very annoying thing when designing. We cannot control it. We basically do not know what others have experienced in their past and how that will play a role when they perceive our designs. This is where it becomes highly subjective and difficult to talk about. And therefore, immensely exciting.
As I go on my quest for beauty, I am aware of these four elements or designerly interpretations of aesthetics: Harmony, Trend, Sensation and Experience. In terms of harmonies, I perceive aesthetics as a kind of indication of what is harmonious and thus also disharmonious in compositions and colour compositions. In relation to trend, I look for a common beauty, which can be seen in groups in contemporary times. The sensation is an increased awareness of all the sensory impressions I get. And in the end, I use my lived experience to ask questions about positive or negative reactions I get based on a design. Often, I find something here that cannot be explained by the other three parameters.
I wrote in my introduction that I want you, the designer, out of your comfortable chair and ready to engage in a discussion. On second thought, it is not a discussion I call for, but rather a dialogue and an increased awareness of the fact that we as designers are still working on creating beauty. Not beauty understood as Aristotle’s dogmatic truths, but beauty understood as a complexity that seduces us but does not always easily decode. Whether we design a shoe, a car or a wayfinding system, we must translate design concepts into physical manifestations. The basic narrative of the design must be interpreted into abstractions and placed in the expression of the shoe, the car, the wayfinding system; in the aesthetic expression with its elements of harmony, trend, sensation and experience.
In a time with an abundance of immaterial and intellectual concept designers, meeting designers, system designers and so on, I call on the old-fashioned designer’s basic skills. I am talking to you who knows how to design, who can conjure narratives in materials and form. You master a craft and a very special ability to make the right choices. You do not reach these choices with your mind but through your actions. Your hands can feel when the sewing in the leather fits tightly, or which surfaces to combine in order to create the perfect tension. You can create the narrative in design, and with your choices of colours and materials, you can pass this narrative on to your user. A poet uses words to seduce his reader and open up new worlds; you seduce and open up new worlds by the use of refined material compositions. I do not have a recipe for how we create beauty. But I know that it is crucial to good design, that it is present. And crucial that we articulate it.
Designerly meanings of aesthetics
Harmony: aesthetics as classical laws of hamonies
Trend: aesthetics as a common taste
Sensation: aesthetic as sensations
Experience: aesthetics as individual preferences
Aristotle and Barnes, J. (1984). The complete works of Aristotle: the revised Oxford translation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Nygaard, Erik (2011) Arkitektur forstået, Denmark: Bogværket
Itten, Johannes (2006) Farvekunstens elementer – subjektive oplevelser og objektiv erkendelse som vejledning til kunsten. Denmark: Borgen
Albers, Josef (2013) Interaction of Color. 50th Anniversary Edition. Yale University Press
Kant, I., Meredith, J.C. and Walker, N. (2008). Critique of judgement. Revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thøgersen, Ulla (2004) Krop og fænomenologi – en introduktion til Maurice Merleau-Pontys filosofi. Denmark: Hans Reitzels
Jordan, Patrick W. (2010). Designing pleasurable products: an introduction to the new human factors. London: Taylor & Francis.
Gregory, Richard (1974) Concepts and Mechanisms of Perception. London: Duckworth.