Aesthetic and Function (or, Why I Can’t Play a Green Guitar)

By: Nick Burman
Graphic Designer, Marketing

6th June 2019

4 minute read

Home » Insights » Aesthetic and Function (or, Why I Can’t Play a Green Guitar)

At the 1st Annual AIGA Louisville Design Week in Louisville, KY in 2015, New York designer Stefan Sagmeister gave a talk on Why Beauty Matters, drawing on real-life examples to illustrate how aesthetic affects function.

The first example he gave was an 80-foot tunnel in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway underpass that had become a run-down eyesore. After painting two large murals on the walls, the tunnels became tourist attractions and even a wedding location.

Beauty came first, function followed.

 

The “Yes” Underpass, commissioned by Sagmeister’s company, Sagmeister & Walsh Image Source: www.creativebloq.com

 

Secondly, he talked about The Highline, an abandoned rail line that, once converted into an elevated park, with plants and trees, became a favourite destination for events, live art and performances. Critics were concerned that it would crumble into a crime haven – in six years not a single crime had occurred in the area.

Beauty made it a useful place.

Lastly was the comparison of two functionally-similar New York stations, Penn Station and Grand Central. Both are widely considered as anger-inducing transportation hubs, with nothing to offer except a means to an end. Testers used Twitter and an algorithm designed to map emotions through tweets to show that people are happier when visiting the beautifully designed Grand Central, instead of the dingy Penn Station.

Given the choice, beauty won.

 

Grand Central Station, New York, USA. Image Source: www.unsplash.com

 

This A-B test is really compelling as it shows the choice that people actually made. It wasn’t a case of heightened awareness, publicity or curiosity, but a conscious decision to choose a station that was more aesthetically pleasing, even though the outcome from visiting each of the stations is unlikely to be any different.

Sagmeister didn’t suggest we build things that work and then make them attractive so people will use them. Instead, he suggested that it is the beauty that promotes function. But this idea of aesthetics having an impact on usage extends to more than public spaces.

Art and science

In many cases, the role of a designer can appear to be ‘making pretty’ for the sake of it or imposing one person’s taste when, in essence, it doesn’t matter if corners are round or square, it is painted pink or black or doesn’t even ship in a box. But those aesthetic choices can mean that a product is more likely to be picked up and used, even long after the sales process is over.

Typography can be a matter of taste, but is an art form based on science. When the type is set in order to flow well and be easily read, reading becomes less tiresome and the information much easier to absorb. In this case, the aesthetic concerns are functional. Also, lines of text that are too long can become difficult to read as the eye can take a few moments longer to find the beginning of the next line. Those few moments lead to fatigue and a reader is more subconsciously inclined to give up reading, no matter how interesting the content.

Similarly, properly spaced (kerned) letters make words easier to identify and make the copy easier to read. Cram the letters together and they become difficult to recognise. Spread them out too far, and the text takes up too much space making it awkward to read.

Just don’t make it green

Without scurrying down the troublesome rabbit warren of colour theory, personal responses to colour also impact immediate appeal and attraction, even when we know better. For example, I’ve never been able to play a green guitar. The colour green isn’t one that I associate with music, and if I had a lime guitar, I just wouldn’t pick it up. It would stay on the wall (or, more likely, in the case). This isn’t related to function, or synaesthesia, because a guitar, like most musical instruments, can work the same in any colour. It’s just me. And I’m fine with that.

While there should always be a balance between function and aesthetic, the end result shouldn’t sacrifice either to the detriment of the other.

As William Morris famously said, “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Why can’t the things we design be both?

At the 1st Annual AIGA Louisville Design Week in Louisville, KY in 2015, New York designer Stefan Sagmeister gave a talk on Why Beauty Matters, drawing on real-life examples to illustrate how aesthetic affects function.

The first example he gave was an 80-foot tunnel in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway underpass that had become a run-down eyesore. After painting two large murals on the walls, the tunnels became tourist attractions and even a wedding location.

Beauty came first, function followed.

 

The “Yes” Underpass, commissioned by Sagmeister’s company, Sagmeister & Walsh Image Source: www.creativebloq.com

 

Secondly, he talked about The Highline, an abandoned rail line that, once converted into an elevated park, with plants and trees, became a favourite destination for events, live art and performances. Critics were concerned that it would crumble into a crime haven – in six years not a single crime had occurred in the area.

Beauty made it a useful place.

Lastly was the comparison of two functionally-similar New York stations, Penn Station and Grand Central. Both are widely considered as anger-inducing transportation hubs, with nothing to offer except a means to an end. Testers used Twitter and an algorithm designed to map emotions through tweets to show that people are happier when visiting the beautifully designed Grand Central, instead of the dingy Penn Station.

Given the choice, beauty won.

 

Grand Central Station, New York, USA. Image Source: www.unsplash.com

 

This A-B test is really compelling as it shows the choice that people actually made. It wasn’t a case of heightened awareness, publicity or curiosity, but a conscious decision to choose a station that was more aesthetically pleasing, even though the outcome from visiting each of the stations is unlikely to be any different.

Sagmeister didn’t suggest we build things that work and then make them attractive so people will use them. Instead, he suggested that it is the beauty that promotes function. But this idea of aesthetics having an impact on usage extends to more than public spaces.

Art and science

In many cases, the role of a designer can appear to be ‘making pretty’ for the sake of it or imposing one person’s taste when, in essence, it doesn’t matter if corners are round or square, it is painted pink or black or doesn’t even ship in a box. But those aesthetic choices can mean that a product is more likely to be picked up and used, even long after the sales process is over.

Typography can be a matter of taste, but is an art form based on science. When the type is set in order to flow well and be easily read, reading becomes less tiresome and the information much easier to absorb. In this case, the aesthetic concerns are functional. Also, lines of text that are too long can become difficult to read as the eye can take a few moments longer to find the beginning of the next line. Those few moments lead to fatigue and a reader is more subconsciously inclined to give up reading, no matter how interesting the content.

Similarly, properly spaced (kerned) letters make words easier to identify and make the copy easier to read. Cram the letters together and they become difficult to recognise. Spread them out too far, and the text takes up too much space making it awkward to read.

Just don’t make it green

Without scurrying down the troublesome rabbit warren of colour theory, personal responses to colour also impact immediate appeal and attraction, even when we know better. For example, I’ve never been able to play a green guitar. The colour green isn’t one that I associate with music, and if I had a lime guitar, I just wouldn’t pick it up. It would stay on the wall (or, more likely, in the case). This isn’t related to function, or synaesthesia, because a guitar, like most musical instruments, can work the same in any colour. It’s just me. And I’m fine with that.

While there should always be a balance between function and aesthetic, the end result shouldn’t sacrifice either to the detriment of the other.

As William Morris famously said, “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Why can’t the things we design be both?

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