A February 15th New York Times op-ed piece by Lance Hosey entitled “Why We Love Beautiful Things” discussed recent scientific studies showcasing an apparently innate human attraction to good design. “Instinctively,” Hosey writes, “we reach out for attractive things; beauty literally moves us.”
Hosey points to three specific subjects in his piece as evidence: color (“merely glancing at shades of green has been shown to boost creativity and motivation”), geometry (the proportions of the golden rectangle are featured in some of the most beloved designs in history, and are “proven to speed up our ability to perceive the world”) and pattern (humans “invariably prefer a certain mathematical density of fractals” that “harken back to the acacia of the African savanna—the place stored in our genetic memory from the cradle of the human race”).
Designers almost always promote articles like Hosey’s because they support a shared, fundamental desire; namely, for the value of design to be better understood and more highly appreciated by the general public. We believe that good design truly makes for a better world. Articles like Hosey’s op-ed piece are invaluable to the dissemination of that cause.
The science behind our physiological preferences is, indeed, an important subject worthy of extensive time and energy. However, the digestion of this information—specifically when applied to the practice of design—must cooperate alongside a certain cultural understanding. Certainly there is more to an attraction to “good design” than merely a rekindling nostalgia for the experiences of our ancestors embedded into our genetic memory. If the attraction to “good” design is one that is, indeed, innately desired by the human race, how does one explain the limitless existence of “bad” design?
Even more important to the validity of these studies is the colossal issue of how we categorize “good” and “bad” design. Certainly we must have a concrete, ubiquitous definition of “good design” if we are to believe that our brains are naturally triggered by it, as Hosey proposes.
Soren Petersen, Ph.D., author, and design researcher proposes that, despite our shrinking world, design preferences are still, to a large extent, “formed by the context and culture in which we live.” To successfully express the unique preferences of their audience, Petersen says, designers need to “internalize culturally implicit values and translate them into visual cues.”
The scientific, physiological studies outlined in Hosey’s piece are incredibly important and valuable, not only for designers trying to champion their skill and trade as one with deep and lasting societal significance, but the work is also beneficial as it gives us a deeper understanding of ourselves: who we are, and what makes us human.
It is hard to argue with research and testing that show our cross-cultural, uniform attraction to things like symmetry and uniformity. However, there are deeper cultural issues that play incredibly important roles in our understanding of something as broad as design.
Our unique individual tastes and preferences are more than instinctual reactions based upon the genetic make-up of the human race; they are unique signifiers of our environments, our homes. And that is exactly what makes working in this industry so much fun.
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