The concept of beauty has always been a complicated one. It has both objective and subjective aspects: some philosophers, such as Plato and Kant, have considered it to be a property of objects; others, like Hume and Burke, have seen it as depending on the emotional response of observers.
Some scientists, such as Galileo and Newton, have also regarded beauty as something objective: they argued that the world around us is made up of universally recognizable patterns and proportions that can be discerned with the right set of eyes. Other scientists, such as Einstein and Dirac, have focused on the mathematical underpinnings of this beauty, with the former pointing to the Golden Ratio, and the latter to the harmonies of music and the movements of the planets.
Many cultures have their own definitions of beauty. These may be cultural or based on internalised standards of worth and appearance (the Kayan tribes believe long necks are the mark of beauty, and at age five girls start priming theirs with heavy brass rings; Renaissance and Humanist thinkers were obsessed with symmetry and proportion, whilst poet John Keats proclaimed “truth is beauty, beauty is truth” in his Ode on a Grecian Urn).
It’s also true that the perception of beauty has changed throughout history, whether in art, design or the human body – from the fetishism of plumpness during the Renaissance era to 90s heroin chic and today’s Kardashian-esque big ass, small waist, large lips. It could be argued, then, that it’s impossible to pin down what beauty actually is.
But some would argue that there is a certain universal set of indices that inform beauty: for example, the desire to achieve perfection, an ability to enjoy a moment, and a sense of harmony with nature and the universe. The latter point is particularly important, with the idea of a natural order that transcends our own existence being a fundamental part of most religions, philosophies and spiritual traditions.
Clearly, there’s no definitive answer to the question of what is beautiful, but that shouldn’t be a reason for us not to try and find it. There’s no doubt that, in our increasingly frantic and disconnected world, beauty is becoming more and more important. We need to recognise and cherish it as a form of human connection that can bring us pleasure, happiness and even comfort.
And, importantly for designers, beauty can also make our work more effective. A Temkin survey found that customers who have a positive emotional experience of a brand are six times more likely to buy, 12 times more likely to recommend and five times more likely to forgive a mistake. So, if you’re not already doing it, let’s all aim to create more beauty in our work. After all, a world where everyone is smiling and feeling good is a pretty nice place to be. By Alan Moore. Alan is a designer, typographer and author. He is passionate about the role of beauty in commercial design and is a firm believer that “beauty flows from purpose”. You can read more about his thoughts on this here.