Why focusing on commercial success alone robs design of its true worth and distorts its place in executives’ attention
There are a number of topics that leaders of design regularly engage with. How can I measure the effectiveness of design to prove its value? What are the best ways of managing a process in which everyone wants involvement but few have deep skills? What is the best model for accessing great design (internal or external; roster or pitch)? One topic is mostly absent, and may be the most important of all: the pursuit of beauty.
When designers stick to the language of commerce, speaking only in terms of short-term effectiveness, we run the risk of undermining our profession. We also risk the long-term health of our organizations. It is only by building deep emotional bonds with consumers that our brands will thrive, and delivering beauty is a key way to bring this about.
Beauty is a fundamental human need, and one that the world of art and design has, for the most part, rejected since the birth of Modernism. Evidence of humans pursuing beauty can be found throughout history. The earliest evidence of pride in making beautiful objects can be found over one million years ago, in our pre-history and before Homo sapiens even walked the earth. Our ancestors, Homo erectus, were making art objects before they had any capacity for spoken language, let alone written communication. In Africa, Acheulean hand axes have been found that are too small or too large to have been of functional use. These objects have been lovingly crafted; they were created for the joy of making, to express something of the maker’s skill, because they were beautiful. Deep in our makeup is a desire to possess beautiful things.
A review of the history of art uncovers a long-standing fascination with beauty. Roger Scruton, one of the foremost philosophers of our time, has commented that "before 1930, if you asked educated people to describe the point of poetry, art, or music, they would have replied: Beauty." The ancient Greeks were fascinated by it, and many of their ideas have been revisited by artists over the years. Plato believed beauty equated to truth and that it was a sign of some higher order. Aristotle believed that tension was needed to create real beauty, while Pythagoras argued that it meant order and symmetry. His model, the golden section, is at the core of much of Western architecture and has recently been found to create spaces that produce a sense of harmony. Interestingly scientists have also discovered that it reflects how many organisms grow.
Beauty has often revolved around the search for the divine; however, fascination with it continued beyond the dominance of the Church. Kant influenced artists to find beauty in the everyday. Even in a time of moral and social decay, the "dandy" believed that one’s life should be a work of art. Oscar Wilde was not being flippant when he philosophized in The Picture of Dorian Grey, "To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders; it is only shallow people that do not judge by appearances." The Impressionists sought new subjects and ways of expressing themselves, but they still considered themselves to be in pursuit of beauty. The early days of industrialization were characterized by an attention to detail and a desire to humanize the new possibilities technology was bringing about, with Art Deco and Art Nouveau searching for forms within nature and bringing decorative concepts to glass and steel. Few can visit New York and not leave with the conclusion that the Chrysler Building is the most beautiful structure in the city.
The birth of Modernism brought about a significant change: the injection of political ideals and the search for concepts into art, design, and architecture. In a seminal moment, Marcel Duchamp found a urinal, turned it on its side, signed it with a fake name, and displayed it in a gallery to challenge the notions of what is Art. During the twentieth century, the fine arts have primarily been about ideas and provocation. Beauty is consciously rejected. Damien Hirst cuts animals in half and displays them in formaldehyde. Tracy Emin displays her unmade bed at the Tate and wins the Turner Prize. "It’s art because I say it’s art" was her rationale.
Elizabeth Prettejohn argues in Beauty and Art that design is as much in thrall to Modernism as it is to Art—it is interested in social and political ideas over beauty, conceptual thinking over aesthetic pleasure.
Some areas of the commercial world understand the human connection to beauty. Automotive manufacturers create objects that are sculptural and beautiful; many are collected and nurtured long beyond their functional life. The luxury industry deeply understands the desire for beauty and delivers objects, environments, and events that connect at a visceral level. Regardless of the prices charged, we want the objects—they speak to our emotions, our desires; they give us pleasure each time we use them. The feeling of writing with a Dunhill pen, carrying a Chanel handbag, or driving an Aston Martin is almost impossible to describe, the love for the brands embedded deep in the emotional centers of our brain. Beauty speaks to us without words.
If beauty connects to people on such a level, why is it seldom talked about by designers and leaders of design in brands? Do we think that we need to speak only the language of commerce to succeed in the commercial world? Return on investment, design effectiveness, value engineering—all are truths about design: It does pay off and increase sales, and great design can look good and cost less. Design is, of course, about problem-solving. All these skills are important, but the primary task is to convince that form does not necessarily follow function, that decoration and styling are worthy, that patents alone will not bring about love, that brands with compelling stories connect deeply. Craft, storytelling, drama, intrigue, the sensuous—these are the things that bring about connection.
To build brands and transform business, we need to convince our chief executives and chief financial officers of the deep-rooted desire consumers have for the beautiful if we want them to feel and appreciate how noble a task is creating objects of desire. Galvanizing our organizations behind beauty, mobilizing the skills and passion of marketers, manufacturing, procurement, and sales to never accept the mediocre, injecting pride and passion into the whole organization around our brand stories, obsessing about product quality and belief in craft, detail and aesthetics—these are the messages that will lead to transformation and growth.
The pursuit of beauty enriches life and is our deepest, most noble task as a designer. Without it we lose our value and deny our brands the chance to embed themselves in consumers’ consciousness. It is time to talk about it, to win the argument, to lead others to share our passion. When this is done, we will have secured the long-term success of our brands