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April 26, 2016 /

Aesthetic Realism: Are We Entering A New Era in Design?

From Plato to da Vinci, simplicity has long been viewed as the essence of beauty.

The idea that less is more has spread deeply into contemporary design, with popular products and interfaces favoring clean, minimal designs with specific user end goals. But at his talk at FITC Toronto last week, designer Mark Rigley wondered if beauty has been lost in the process. Is it time to return to focusing on the beauty of the things we create? And how can beauty be used to enhance a user’s experience?


Defining Aesthetic Realism

Rigley’s talk was all about introducing the concept of “aesthetic realism” in design.

Poet Eli Siegel first introduced the term back in 1941 as a way to describe his philosophy that what is real, is beautiful. His thoughts on this relate to the notion of seeing the world more clearly by identifying and appreciating the beauty of its opposites.

In many ways Rigley’s thoughts on beauty and aesthetic realism are similar, but from a design perspective he views this concept more as a burgeoning design era in its own right, one that is a synthesis of the modern and post-modern design eras.

“Beauty is not easy to talk seriously about,” he said in his talk. “It’s something most of us don’t think about much, and when we do it’s not deep.”

Rigley, who holds the title of Playground Director at the Ottawa-based Fuel Youth Engagement, wants designers to start talking and thinking more meaningfully about the role of beauty in their work and the impact it can have on a user’s experience.

“Beauty is important and a contributing factor to a designer’s success, yet many designers lack conviction in the beauty of their designs,” he said.

Beautiful Things Work Better

While beauty is often influenced by culture, it is also evanescent and changes over time, “whether it’s wine or women,” Rigley said. He sees aesthetic realism as a revival of beauty, but also as evidence to suggest that beauty is not as subjective as we are lead to believe.

One needs to look no further than the history books to find evidence of objective arguments for aesthetic beauty, Rigley argues, drawing on the example of Kelly Johnson, an American systems and aeronautical engineer recognized as one of the most prolific aircraft design engineers in the history of aerospace.

Johnson insisted that, “an aircraft that looks beautiful will fly the same way.”

One of his contributions was the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, an innovative aircraft whose smooth and carefully crafted design features reduced its radar signature, making it very stealthy. Beyond this it was fast. Very fast. The aircraft held world records in speed and altitude, one time flying from New York to London in just 1 hour and 54 minutes.


Image via Wikipedia

“Beauty is instrumentally reliable,” Rigley said, asking audience members to consider how a product’s beauty can be used to predict how well it will perform.

“If [beauty is] subjective, how could that possible be true?” Rigley asked. “Is it that beauty is not subjective?”

Beauty’s Impact on Design Skills

Much of studying beauty is a study of the human condition and how our aesthetic judgments are based on real experiences. The beauty of things can have a direct impact on our ability as users to connect to a product with empathy, making the consumption of the design a more meaningful experience.

“You become a better designer to the extent you learn about humans and the way they are,” Rigley said.

Audience members were shown a picture of a male peacock with all its feathers out on display. We were asked to consider the symbolism of the feathers, how in this case the beauty is a representation of the security the male can offer a mate; and how the cascading colors reveal a solid gene pool for reproduction. Rigley then tied beauty to evolution, saying that survival depends largely on aesthetic judgment.

Rigley encouraged designers in the audience to think about the relationship between beauty and function to see both the simplicity and complexity involved in creating beautiful designs.

“The more form follows function, the more beautiful the form will appear,” he said before leaving the audience with some final food for thought.

“Trust your intuitions about beauty; make it work for you and use it as a guide to making more things beautiful. Beauty is in the journey.”

Join the discussion

  • By Tim - 2:56 PM on May 5, 2016  

    “The more form follows function, the more beautiful the form will appear”
    This is exactly why responsive websites all look terrible.

  • By Chupacabras - 5:03 PM on June 1, 2016  

    Art is seen as a prime means for studying and achieving this oneness in self. The opposites in art are the same ones we find in ourselves. To learn about art is to learn about self.