“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.” – Steve Jobs, Fortune
In light of Steve Jobs’ passing, numerous articles have been written in homage to his extraordinary ability to merge beauty and technology, to emotionally engage consumers on another level. For a moment, lets go beyond cosmetic beauty and examine the idea of beauty. What is beauty? How do we experience beauty? What do we consider beautiful? The two TED Talks below, one by industrial designer Richard Seymour and the other by the late philosophy professor and editor of Arts & Letters Daily Denis Dutton, offer insights into the power of beauty, our emotional responses to beauty and how the idea of beauty has evolved over time.
Richard Seymour: How Beauty Feels
This is a story about an 18th century watch maker. One day a customer came in to ask him to clean his watch. He took it apart and took out one of the balance wheels. And as he did so the customer noticed that on the back side there was an engraving of words. And he said to the guy, “why have you put stuff on the back when no one can see it?” And the watchmaker said, “God can see it.”
Do we think beauty? Or do we feel it? Beauty is in the limbic system of the beholder… These are the pleasure centers, and maybe what I’m seeing and sensing and feeling is bypassing my thinking. The wiring of the sensory apparatus to those bits is shorter than that of the thinking bits. They arrive first.
We see things not as they are, but as we are. – Anais Nin
It is that easy to lose beauty because beauty is incredibly difficult to do. And only a few people can do it. A focus group cannot do it. And a team rarely can do it.
Form is function. It informs, it tells us, it supplies us answers before we’ve even thought about it.
On capturing the consumer at FMOT:
You’re a slave of that first flash. We are slaves to the first few fractions of the second. And that’s where much of my work has to win or lose on a shelf, in a shop.
Comprehension of it [a situation, object, etc] leads to a greater and heightened sense of the beauty of what’s going on.
Forming the emotional bond, between the thing and you is an electrochemical trick that happens before you even think about it.
Denis Dutton: A Darwinian Theory of Beauty
I personally have no doubt whatsoever that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment.
The other great principle of evolution is sexual selection, and it operates very differently. The peacock’s magnificent tail is the most famous example of this. It did not evolve for natural survival. In fact, it goes against natural survival. No, the peacock’s tail results from the mating choices made by peahens. It’s women who actually push history forward… Now, keeping these ideas firmly in mind, we can say that the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination, even obsession, in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction.
One fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.
Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No, it’s deep in our minds. It’s a gift, handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.