Attractive Things Work Better: An Argument for Aesthetics

Pretend for a moment that the word aesthetic was not stolen by the meme community and turned into a symbolic word for the classic internet douche. I’m here to discuss true aesthetics, a set of underlying principles that create beauty of different varieties. There’s an entire, well respected, philosophical field devoted to the study of beauty called aesthetics.

Though I am passionate about dissuading the word aesthetics' bad reputation, this blog post is actually about the importance of aesthetic consideration in within design. It may seem obvious to you: of course beauty should be considered in the design of something.

But why is beauty important? Why is beauty important in web design? There are, in fact, scientific answers. Cognitive psychologist and product designer Donald Norman discusses this at length in his book, Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. In fact, he makes a bold statement:

Attractive things work better.

This doesn’t make intuitive sense off the bat; aesthetics should not affect how easy or difficult a product is to use, right? However, this effect has been seen through scientific research. The first researchers to discover this were Kurosu and Kashimura from Japan in 1995. They conducted a study giving participants two ATM interfaces with identical functions, but one was designed to be aesthetically pleasing, while the other was not. Kurosu’s team found that across the board, participants found the more attractive ATM easier to use. This experiment was repeated by a disbelieving researcher in Israel, who received the same results, suggesting that the findings were not situational nor cultural. The more beautiful interfaces were easier to use.

Donald Norman theorizes that is due to aesthetics' effect on our brain. When we view something aesthetically pleasing, our brain goes into a “positive effect,” which is like a happy emotional reaction. Norman’s research centers around the way emotions change the human mind solves problems. An emotion can alter the cognitive systems operations, aiding it or hindering it. You’ve probably seen this in your daily life, it’s much harder to find your missing car keys when you’re in a panicked state attempting to get to work on time. Anxiety narrows thought processes, which is a good evolutionary trait in order to escape danger, but a challenging one in that it hinders imagining new approaches to a problem. Viola: the struggle of missing keys.

Aesthetics provide the opposite effect. Attractive things make people feel good, which in turn allows neurons to fire better and thought processes to improve. Creative and imaginative thinking is promoted, and users can find This means users are thinking better when they are faced with an attractive interface, and the interface’s usability is therefore increased.

How cool is that? A direct link between function and beauty: beauty, to some degree, creates function. For most philosophers and scholars in the field of aesthetics, the link between beauty and function has been thought of as “mystical” or far fetched. But thanks to studies like these, designers’ and engineers’ opinions of aesthetics are starting to shift.

To the outside world, the field of design might seem like just applying makeup on top of technology, a thin layer of beauty applied as an afterthought. This is far from the truth. It’s important to remember the reason why beauty is an important element in design, and the reason why we design things in general: to make life better for humans.

Attractive Things Work Better: An Argument for AestheticsSo designers, go make pretty stuff. On purpose. Researchers, put time and effort into understanding aesthetic principles and implementing them in design. Let's make the world more functional and more beautiful.

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