Designing Meaningful Aesthetics

This weekend I came across a post from a few months back that seems to be making the rounds again. Beyond Web Mechanics – Creating Meaningful Web Design by Mike Kus argues that designers should be making thoughtful choices in regards to the aesthetic decisions we make. He argues that we should create meaningful aesthetics.

Digital art based on the word Aesthetic

Mike’s post arose from a presentation Elliot Jay Stocks gave a few years back called “Destroy the Web 2.0 Look,” which makes a similar argument about choosing aesthetics because they enhance the content of the site and not because they happen to be trendy. I’ll add the video of Elliot’s presentation and the slides from the presentation below in this post.

Most of you can probably guess I agree with both Mike and Elliot. I won’t even pretend to be in the same class of designer as either, but I can tell you that every design decision I’ve ever made had a lot of thought behind it. Maybe not always the best thought as I’ve certainly made my share of design mistakes, but thought nonetheless.

I’ve always tried to have a reason for adding aesthetics to any design instead of just adding something because it looks good.

I wanted to talk a little about what are aesthetics and why designers should be choosing aesthetics that are meaningful to the message being communicated. I’d also like to add a few thoughts about aesthetic beauty for it’s own sake.

What are Aesthetics?

To understand design aesthetics we must first define aesthetics in general. Here are a few definitions from answers.com.

aesthetics (noun)

  • The branch of philosophy that deals with the nature and expression of beauty, as in the fine arts.
  • In Kantian philosophy, the branch of metaphysics concerned with the laws of perception.
  • The study of the psychological responses to beauty and artistic experiences.
  • A conception of what is artistically valid or beautiful: minimalist aesthetics.
  • An artistically beautiful or pleasing appearance

A few words keep coming up in the above. Art, beauty, philosophy. We can probably toss out philosophy here and focus in on art and beauty. Two more quick definitions defining aesthetics as an adjective

  • Pertaining to, involving, or concerned with pure emotion and sensation as opposed to pure intellectuality.
  • Pertaining to a sense of the beautiful

Again beauty is mentioned and we’ll pick up the idea of aesthetics being taken in emotionally as opposed to intellectually.

Typgraphic desgn of the word Aesthetics

What are Design Aesthetics?

Design is about solving problems. As web designers we have to determine how information on a site will be organized and what would be the best navigational systems to use to allow our audience to find that information. We’re concerned with typography so content is legible and readable and we think about how to develop a layout that can house all the different things that need to be included on the page.

Certainly there are many more problems we generally solve when designing a website, but think about the few I mentioned above. You can solve all of the above problems without creating anything beautiful. Your navigation doesn’t need to be a work of art and people probably aren’t responding to it emotionally in order for it to work well.

Solving problems well likely leads to something more aesthetically pleasing than not solving them well, but we haven’t really hit design aesthetics yet. As we arrange space and form according to solid design principles we come closer to aesthetics, but again I don’t think we’ve reached it quite yet.

The aesthetics come in when we make our elements and the entire design more than something utilitarian and functional. It’s the extra details put in to make them visually appealing. Aesthetics are the artistry. In some ways it’s the eye candy who’s function is solely to generate a wow or other emotional response. It’s an added layer of beauty on top of the usable and functional.

Making Design Aesthetics Meaningful

Getting back to Mike’s post and Elliot’s presentation is the idea of making aesthetics meaningful. I just used the words eye candy above when talking about aesthetics and eye candy usually isn’t meaningful.

Imagine for a moment that the design of this site featured a winter theme. Maybe snow is falling in the header and there are skis and snowboards present directing your eye. The colors would be cool, mostly white and an icy blue. Trees covered in snow, a ski lodge, an icy lake, all might be present in some way. You could certainly create a beautiful aesthetic with the above wintery theme, but how meaningful would it be?

The wintery theme doesn’t say anything about my business or this site. It doesn’t say much about me either. I enjoy an occasional snowstorm, but for the most part winter is my least favorite season. I don’t ski or snowboard or spend much of any time in ski lodges.

As beautiful as the aesthetic might be it doesn’t really communicate any of the things I want this site to communicate. A wintery aesthetic wouldn’t be meaningful for this site.

Logo for Red Aesthetic Designs

Every element in a design communicates something. Every element has an effect on the whole. Every design comes with an aesthetic. When the elements of your design work together in a style that unites them into something cohesive you create a more meaningful aesthetic. When you choose an aesthetic that’s in harmony with your message it becomes even more meaningful.

All too often when you look around the web you see sites designed with an aesthetic not based on anything meaningful, but rather based on the current trends. You also see sites that begin to blend together when it comes to their design with each site looking pretty much like the next.

Different sites, different products and services, different messages to communicate, call for a different aesthetic.

That’s not to say all sites need never share anything in common. They don’t all need to be 100% unique. Part of solving design problems is coming up with reusable patterns. There’s a reason why most navigation is either a horizontal bar or a vertical menu with a list of links. They work. Same for houses and envelopes as frequently used icons.

Still there’s no reason why your home button should like like every other home button. Even a little bit of character can lend to a more meaningful aesthetic.

Aesthetic Beauty for Beauty’s Sake

Whenever I think about aesthetics I think about making things beautiful for no other reason than to make them beautiful. I want to make beautiful things. I think many visual designers would say the same thing and it strikes me that we should all want to.

And yet beauty for beauty’s sake isn’t meaningful in the context of a single and specific design. The meaning comes from more than beauty alone. You could argue that beauty for beauty’s sake pushes us more into the realm of art and that there is great meaning in art. Yet art and design aren’t quite the same. I think they overlap more than others think, but they aren’t the same thing.

It’s easy to understand that making your aesthetics meaningful is something you ought to do. It contributes to what you’re trying to communicate. It’s harder to make the argument to make things beautiful just to make them beautiful. There are studies pointing out that people find more beautiful designs more usable, even an object as simple as a teapot.

Human beings have all sorts of bias toward beautiful things, which leads us to prefer those things and find them more usable. Still it’s harder to justify the extra time or even point of pushing design toward art when thinking about time and budgets.

And yet whenever I think about aesthetics in design that’s exactly what I think we should be doing. Yes our designs need to be functional. They need to work and be usable and findable. But I think they should be something more as well.

Yes we should strive for an aesthetic that reinforces our message and enhances communication and having done that we may not need to push beyond that aesthetic. And yet I can’t help thinking we should be doing just that if only to create a better experience on the web.

Additional Resources

Below is an interesting series of posts on beauty in web design by Cennydd Bowles.

Cover page for a portfolio for aesthetics by Andres Willaert

Summary

There are two somewhat conflicting points I’ve been trying to make in this post.

  • Designers should be able to defend their aesthetic choices in order to create a meaningful design aesthetic
  • Designers should want to create beautiful things even when there is no additional meaning added in that beauty

I think the first point above far more important. Adding beauty for beauty’s sake is something that should be done on top of a meaningful aesthetic and not in place of it. Your aesthetics not only should be, but need to be meaningful, else there’s little point to them.

However assuming you’ve met that first requirement of creating a meaningful aesthetic I think all designers should strive to make the aesthetics of their designs as beautiful as they can for no other reason than more art and beauty in the world are good things.

What do you think? How important is it that design aesthetics be meaningful and is beautifying the web a goal designers should have?

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

7 comments

  1. “From now on: You’re only allowed to use a logo reflection if your company name has the word ‘reflect’ in it.”

    *Looks up at website logo, looks for word ‘reflect’..

  2. The irony wasn’t lost on me as I wrote this post. However keep in mind that quote comes from someone other than me and I never said I agreed with it specifically. Also in my defense this is an old design and a new post. People can change their minds after all.

  3. Steven,

    I like comparing “giving the client too much control” to “letting a 4 year old decide, whats for dinner, every single night”..

    Cake and Ice Cream for life, anyone?

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