RE: Is beauty too deep?

10 May 2005 - 2:26pm
514 reads
Jim Leftwich

The following quote is my favorite regarding how beauty and design are
integrated with and emerge from form and function.

I've long been aware of a basic and fundamental differentiation
(speaking in broad generalizations, but still there) between the
American approach to design (more *advertising* and *styling* oriented)
and the European approach to design (wholism, integrated experience,
generalist design approachs, elegance from integration of function with
beauty and aesthetics, etc.). I don't want to get off in the weeds
here with this simplistic division (Europe has a lot of difference
between Dutch, German, and Italian design, etc.). But it is true that
much of American design is "styled." Think about the streamlining of
Ramond Loewy, vs. the intellectual integration and ideals of the
Bauhaus as representative of these two departure points.

The quote below speaks of a beauty which is not (at least as the first
priority) styled (though anyone that's ever looked at the routing of
lines and shape of contituent elements in a locomotive, it's obvious
that thought is given to this aesthetically). Today we're beginning to
see a mix of this type of beauty, integrated with playful or
metaphorical styling (product semantics, as explored by the Cranbrook
School of Design in the early 1980s).

This general subject is discussed exhaustively within the Industrial
Design field, which is where I come from.

- - -
Elegance in Design

One characteristic of functional design is elegance. Most people find
a buttercup beautiful, and many would say that the locomotive was at
least pleasant to look at. However, the buttercup has an essential
elegance, much more fundamental than its mere appearance. It is an
elegant solution to a difficult problem in functional design; it has
leaves to gather sunlight, oxygen and carbon dioxide from the air, and
roots to extract water and minerals from the soil and hold it fast in
the ground. Its stems support the leaves and flowers and transmit
materials and signals (in the form of special substances). In its
cells it makes and distributes many substances. It grows, it repairs
damage to itself and it flowers and produces seed. It does all this in
a fiercely competitive world with an extreme economy of living
material, and its beautiful outward form is a reflection of its
economical design.

The buttercup is a splendid piece of engineering, much more advanced
and refined than the locomotive. But even so, the locomotive is an
elegant design, economical in its use of energy and material, with its
balanced mechanisms and well-proportioned parts, full of ingenious
detail and thoughtful refinements, and the overall coherence and unity
that results so often from a single purpose intelligently pursued. It
has beauty for the educated eye - and because of its simple action the
education need only be slight - and that beauty comes nearly all from
its functional design, and very little from conscious aesthetic

Design in Nature and Engineering
M.J. French

excerpted from Chapter 1: The Designed World
- - -

- James Leftwich, IDSA

> From: Wendy Fischer <erpdesigner at>
> Date: May 10, 2005 11:00:56 AM PDT
> To: "Reimann, Robert" <Robert_Reimann at>, ixd-discussion
<discuss at>
> Cc: Subject: RE: [ID Discuss] Is beauty too deep?
> I haven't read the readings on aesthetics. However I have been
reading Norman's
> Emotional Design.
> I think that beauty or an aesthetic is something that needs to be
defined for users
> before a product is designed. It depends on the needs and goals of
the users, the
> purpose of the product, the audience, etc. Beauty is also cultural,
subjective and
> opinion. Beauty can be practical; it can also be highly impractical.
Also, somebody
> may find beauty in something you don't think as beautiful.
> What one culture sees as beautiful may not be beautiful in another
> -Wendy
> > "Reimann, Robert" <Robert_Reimann at> wrote:
> > [Please voluntarily trim replies to include only relevant quoted
> >
> >
> > I do like the way Roweena Reed (founder of Industrial Design
Program @ the
> > Pratt Institute) spoke about "beauty", as the perfect combination
of form meeting
> > function.
> I guess I see this definition of beauty as being a bit too...
> I understand what she's getting at, though, and "purpose" seems to me
> a much more inclusive word than "function", since it implies human
> and motivation, rather than mere mechanistic activity. Of course, it
> doesn't alliterate quite as nicely. :^)
> Such a definition of beauty is, however, fairly different from the
> common understanding of the term, which is one of the reasons I
> prefer to use the term "affect".
> Robert.

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