Evaluate Aesthetic Strategies

by Terry Lee Stone

When many people think of design, what they are often conjuring up in their minds is something much more analogous to “style”—the appearance of the thing, not its rationale, technical configuration, or resulting experience.

Designers need to explain design in terms of how a particular arrangement of graphic elements works together to communicate something to an audience that will help the client solve their problem or reach their goal. Designers need to present the work in terms of aesthetics, not just mere appearance. These two terms are not exactly synonymous.

Aesthetics comes from the Greek word for perceiver or sensitive. Aesthetics is the theory and study of beauty. As the old saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Everything we experience in life shapes our idea of beauty—essentially, what is pleasing is a learned response. Each and every one of us goes through cultural training—intentional or unintentional—that forms our ideas of what is aesthetically pleasing. In philosophical terms, aesthetics is also the study of sensory or “sensori-emotional” value, a meaning that refers to the sensibilities of perception, or the idea of intuition. Essentially, how something is viewed and perceived by a person causes them to place a particular value judgment upon it.

Design + Aesthetics
Aesthetics in design has to do with the deliberate arrangement of elements—shape, color, typography, etc.—in a way that appeals to the senses and/or emotions. It is an expression of taste, which is essentially a preference. Taste is personal, but also subject to social pressures. A particular group declares something to be in “good” or “bad” taste, and if a person is part of that group, they tend to agree with the group opinion. Why this all matters is that at the heart of a designer’s work is encoding and decoding messages to move a particular group of people or target audience to do something. This encoding and decoding means translating ideas from client speak into audience speak, or translating client goals into visual imagery—essentially, translating information from one format into the other. Therefore, designers must understand the tastes of the target audience and then leverage aesthetics to mirror those preferences. So to come full circle, when people say that design is all about surface appearance, they are missing the deeper understanding that those surfaces are created to form aesthetic or emotional and sensory connections.

Not Personal Preferences
When designers solve visual problems they must reach past their own personal aesthetic preferences to tap into those of their audience. One of the biggest challenges a designer faces is helping their client do the same thing. This is why all design decisions must be argued as appropriate for a specific context, not just that it looks and feels good or “works.” That may be true, but this opens the door to endless subjective critique by the client. Traditionally that is something that does not result in approval, intact, of a designer’s original well-considered concept. In this way, the effective use of aesthetic choices can make a design resonate deeply with a target audience. This resonance creates an emotional connection.

Terry Lee Stone is a writer, manager, producer, and creative strategist in Los Angeles.

It can be useful to visualize aesthetic considerations of design solutions. Why? It gives the designer and client a quick visual reference about the emphasis being placed on specific aesthetic factors. It lets the designers know that their solutions are different enough to provide a range of choices for the client.


Quick Tips
Aesthetic Truths: Aesthetics play a significant role in cognitive processing—the way things look and feel affects the way people think or understand them. Consider the following truths when thinking about how a design can move an audience to a particular response:
· Aesthetics can communicate function and the idea of usability.
· People believe they like what they like instinctively—but in fact, it is a learned preference.
· Color affects people on a visceral level.
· Emotions are strong differentiators because they trigger unconscious responses to the design for a product or service.
· People identify and trust certain personalities. Because personality can be conveyed through branding, people perceive a client’s personality through graphics.

Dig Deeper!
1. Get Terry Lee Stone’s books Managing The Design Process: Concept Development and Managing The Design Process: Implementing Design.

2. Donald A. Norman, professor of cognitive and computer science, author of the books The Design of Everyday Things wrote “Aesthetics matter: attractive things work better.” Read his essay.

3. The New Zealand-based philosopher Denis Dutton, author of the book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, has identified seven universal signatures in human aesthetics. These things are common, no matter what cultural difference may be.