Everything can be beautiful

I argue that everything can be beautiful … as long as somebody with authority claims it to be.

To make something beautiful is thus not about curves versus rectangles, saturation, hue, symmetry, proportions, or any other hidden “aesthetic code.” To make something beautiful is about deciding what to make, exposing people to it, and claiming with authority that it is beautiful. In this respect beauty is more or less constructed socially. There are no Platonic ideals, waiting to be uncovered. There are ideals waiting to be fashioned, and there is intersubjective agreement to be reached by familiarity and authority.

For design this is freedom and burden at the same time. Although we can establish everything as beautiful—even streamlined toasters—we become more and more aware of the responsibility this implies. It was us and not any evolutionary aesthetic code that established the wasp waist, subjecting women to cracked and deformed ribs, weakened abdominal muscles, and deformed and dislocated internal organs. Was Rubens just depicting the beauty ideal of his time, or was he actually setting it to voluptuous, stout, and luxuriant? Is it some hard-wired evolutionary preference or us who decided to create a beauty ideal in cars that look as if they run on chummy pedestrians rather than on gasoline

Do you agree?

Hassenzahl, M. (2012). Everything can be beautiful. interactions, 19(4), 60. doi:10.1145/2212877.2212892

4 Comments to “Everything can be beautiful”

  1. I fully agree. And the work on an appopriate “aesthetics of interaction” is just beginning …

  2. A thought: I sometimes get the feeling, especially after a month in India, that in the rich, western world we are obsessed with “beauty on the surface”. We want to look at something and feel good. In poorer countries the “surface” is often ugly, dirty, falling apart, things are quite chaotic. But people are often smiling, friendly, interested. As soon as the interaction with the people starts, my user experience shifts. I start enjoying my surroundings. Not focused any more on how things look, but how everything feels. It’s all in the interaction.

  3. @Philipp: I wrote in the full paper:

    But wait, isn’t the swiftness of the judgment process a hint that beauty is a result of innate mechanisms shaped by evolution? This is how the argument goes: We find, for example, fresh green landscapes beautiful because they signal food and water, and thus, survival. Personally, though, I find certain beaches beautiful (see Figure 1), but I guess I am simply an exception to the rule (there is always an odd one). Besides green landscapes, symmetry and certain proportions seem to be beautiful. They signal health, which in turn is an indicator for reproductive success. Beautiful people are more likely to give birth to healthy children. What I wonder about is that no matter how clever we are, we somehow fail to recognize that a TV set or a car has only a weak relation to reproduction, but we still like it better when it is symmetric. Do we simply fail to differentiate between beautiful humans and cars? I find that unconvincing, but evolutionary explanations are hard to rebut.

  4. I agree, partially. In my experience there are at least two types of reactions to “beauty”. One is an “purely emotional” reaction hardwired to our brains, which evolved over millions of years. Here I’m talking about neuroaestethics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroesthetics). The other action may be closely linked to our social upbringing, our culture. The greek gods had human bodies. To make them look impressive, the artists “perfected” their bodies. This went so far, that the greeks thought that beauty=intelligence (watch the series How Art made the World). I think, at least in the west, we still are heavely influenced by this greek mindset.

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