Has this ever happened to you? A potential client gets in touch and while describing their project they mention that it shouldn’t cost much because it doesn’t need to look pretty before they add it doesn’t need a lot of design.
Design does not equal making things pretty, but a significant number of people seem to think it does. They think aesthetics are design and somehow think all the other things designers do just happen on their own. I’m sure you’d agree that good design doesn’t just happen.
They may not equal design, but aesthetics are part of design. Where do they fit? What role do they play? Where should they come from? As I’ve been doing the last few weeks, I want to think out loud, this time about aesthetics and web design.
What are Aesthetics?
I guess we should start by asking what are aesthetics?.
aesthetics (noun) — a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty, esp. in art.
When form arises out of function you get design. When function arises out of form you get art.
The key word in the definition above is beauty. Aesthetics are the making things pretty part of design that our clients often confuse with the entirety of design. They’re the how it looks part of design as opposed to the how it works part.
Every design will have some kind of aesthetic. Whether or not you consciously create an aesthetic for a website it will have one and people will see it and judge it based on the beauty they perceive in it.
Even more, that aesthetic is going to be involved in the communication between site and viewer. You might as well take advantage of the opportunity. An obvious question you might ask though, is where should the aesthetic come from? Can it be anything or should it be unified with the rest of the design?
Form Follows Function
I’ve long been a fan of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. If I’m near a building he designed, I’ll go out of my way to visit it. My fondness for Wright naturally led me to Louis Sullivan and his famous quote.
Form ever follows function
The quote tends to be paraphrased as form follows function, which is how I’ll refer to it here most of the time. The idea is that the form, (the shape, the look, the aesthetics) of an object should be based on its function or purpose.
I agree, though I think the phrase sometimes gets interpreted to suggest that form is less important than function and that function can never be influenced by form. This I don’t agree with. I think form and function share more of a symbiotic relationship with each other.
It makes sense for the form of an object to arise out the purpose of that object. How a thing looks should communicate the essence of what the thing is and does. When the aesthetics of a design adhere to form following function, the design seems inevitable. How could it look any other way?
At the same time how the thing looks influences how it functions or at least how well people using the object perceive it to function.
As I said above aesthetics add another layer of communication to an object. This layer of communication doesn’t have to specifically be about the function of the object. It’s an opportunity to communicate something in addition to how it works.
Aesthetic Details — Designing For Emotion
A few years ago Aaron Walter wrote Designing for Emotion for A Book Apart. If you haven’t already read it, count this as a recommendation that you should.
Aaron is a lead designer for Mailchimp and the site features prominently in the book’s examples. Aaron shares how the addition of Freddie the Chimp to the Mailchimp website helps communicate messages like fun, welcoming, and friendly. The site’s aesthetic communicate the personality of the brand that is Mailchimp and I presume the people who work for the company.
These aesthetics hardly arise out of the function of the site, which is to manage email lists. I’m guessing few people would use words like fun, welcoming, and friendly to describe email lists and yet Mailchimp communicates this message independent of its function through an aesthetic layer.
That fun message may not arise out of the function of mailing lists, but it does have a function. It makes the site more enjoyable to use. It increases the perception of site usability. The aesthetics don’t change the function of the site, but they do change how the site functions.
In a sense form has influenced function. It’s quite possible that someone will choose to visit, not to manage any of their lists, but to interact with Freddie for a few minutes and make themselves smile. I have no doubt that happens at times and so form has added a new function to the site. To make someone smile.
The function of a site to manage email lists isn’t about fun and whimsy, but the aesthetics of that site can still be fun and whimsical. By making use of the aesthetic layer to communicate something outside the function of the site, Mailchimp communicates something about the company and contributes something new to the function of the site.
Movin’ on up Maslow’s Pyramid
If you’re not familiar with Maslow’s pyramid, the basic idea is that we all have a hierarchy of needs. At the base of the hierarchy our needs are physical needs. We need to breathe and eat and sleep. Further up in the hierarchy we have needs based on safety, then love and belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization at the peak of the pyramid.
Maslow’s pyramid gets translated into different industries all the time, with design being no exception. How a thing works and how it functions sit at the base of the hierarchy of design needs pyramid. Moving up the pyramid we encounter reliability, usability, proficiency, and creativity.
If you ask someone which products, which services, which websites they love, they’ll likely point to sites where great attention to detail has been given. They’ll point to details that often have little to do with function and simply delight.
It’s at the top of the pyramid where we find visitors to our site feeling delight in our designs. Does delight have to arise out of function? Can’t it also arise solely out of form? Can we bring in a form from the side like Freddie the Chimp to delight our visitors so long as it doesn’t contradict function. Assuming needs at the base of the pyramid are met, can we introduce something not dependent on them at the top?
Freddie isn’t an obvious outcome that arises from the meaning of managing a mailing list, but Freddie doesn’t contradict anything about managing an email list either. He comes in from the side reaching (or perhaps swinging) from the top of the pyramid.
Think about easter eggs hidden in software or a website. They may never be found and they may express nothing about the function of the site, but they make us smile and build a stronger connection between us and the site.
You may not need to include the top of Maslow’s pyramid into a design, but it makes a lot of sense to do so. Aesthetic details will go a long way toward creating passion for your product and increasing customer loyalty.
Aesthetics Can Go Too Far
The recent change from a skeuomorphic aesthetic to flat one is an example where aesthetics can go too far. What began as a way to communicate something meaningful evolved into a way to delight before it went too far.
Designers tried to one up each other and push the aesthetic further in order to out delight each other. At some point they pushed it past a breaking point for many people and everything broke. Instead of delighting, the aesthetic annoyed.
The delight designers were trying to impart worked better when it wasn’t so expected and when it was done in moderation. When expected it couldn’t delight. When done in excess it became tiring.
Unfortunately the aesthetic had become the design. Some designer’s forgot that the underlying function, reliability, and usability were important. They confused style for substance and thought all that was required was to slap on the latest trendy coat of aesthetics.
Form not only stopped following function, it went as far as to assume it didn’t need to consider function. While it didn’t need to arise from function, it couldn’t ignore it or compete with it. Form started to think it was function. It isn’t. It started to act as though function didn’t exist. It does. Form and function work better when they get along and not when either forgets the other.
Aesthetics aren’t design, but they do play an important role in design. How a thing looks influences those who use it and it contributes back to the function of the thing being designed.
The aesthetic of an object are ideally based on what the object is and does. However, an additional layer of aesthetic meaning can be added to provide new and different communication and even expand on the function of the object.
Aesthetics can be pushed too far and forget where they come from. When form stops thinking about function, the aesthetics of a design can become tiresome.
Form can lead and influence function at times, but it can’t replace it. When form arises out of function you get design. When function arises out of form you get art. Art is a wonderful thing, but it isn’t design.
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I really enjoyed reading this article. Some great perspectives on web design (and design in general). Thank you.
Thanks Jason. I’m glad you liked the article.