MATTERS OF BEAUTY

By Penny Benda

Has the idea of beauty lost its power? Is it an ideal we need no longer reach for in art or design? Is it simply an artifact of an earlier era, a remnant of a pre-digital age that has no virtue or value in a world driven by the wheels of global commerce? At the risk of being unfashionable, I think not. For if designers are to create images, tools and environments that reflect human experience, Beauty must on occasion be appeased.

In fact, I think beauty is a quality that people recognize, want and need — in design as in life. Currently, it’s not unusual to see a fair amount of talk about design in print and in publications as dissimilar as The New Yorker, Business Week or Metropolis. And design has a place at the table in more and more conference rooms, creating a richer understanding of what design is and what it can do. But the conversation tends to center on design and innovation, design and market share and how it is that good design is good business. All are worthy discussions. But the word “beauty” is largely missing from the conversation. After all, what does beauty have to do with fulfilling a need — or creating “more happiness,” to quote Charles Eames. Faced with a present and a future that seem to demand pragmatic solutions to pressing problems, what good is it?

I think that it is quite possible that beauty is significant, even essential, and that its ability to astonish our eyes or renew our spirit is an experience we hunger for even in our postpostmodern century. Indeed, the experience of beauty may be linked to sustaining our life as human beings every bit as much as those innovations designed to cure our prevailing economic and ecological problems. A designer of no less stature than Milton Glaser has said, “We respond [to beauty] as a species; we have always responded to beauty all through history, whatever the standard was.” And further, “Beauty is the means by which you move towards attentiveness. And art does have its purpose and that is for survival.”[1] Perhaps we could fairly substitute design for art and say that, at the least, beauty can get us to pay attention long enough to perceive meaning in pictures, objects or spaces — a uniquely human capacity — or to receive vital signals from our environment or our psyche.

Writer Anne Lamott echoes that idea in her book Bird by Bird, musing about why writing matters: “I think; to help others have this sense of — please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off-guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.” [2] That description seems to me to be an equally fine way of saying why beauty matters.

“It is alarming that publications devoted to architecture have banished from their pages the words Beauty, Inspiration, Magic, Spellbound, Enchantment, as well as the concepts of Serenity, Silence, Intimacy and Amazement. All these have nestled in my soul, and ... never ceased to be my guiding lights.”

- Luis Barragan, Pritzker Prize acceptance speech

In more concrete terms, the beauty of a typeface can lead the reader’s attention to the text and to the message the words are meant to convey. Thus, the beauty of the letterforms serves the intent to express, to illuminate, inform or persuade. If one is not a designer, it’s easy to forget that letterforms organized into words, paragraphs and pages, are designed every bit as much as an object or a graphic user interface or a roof that keeps the rain off; that a typeface acts as the vessel of language and embodies ideas about balance, grace and clarity. As designer Michael Vanderbyl has said, “To create a beautiful typeface is one of the most difficult tasks for a designer and one of the great accomplishments of our culture.”

Most designers would agree that their job is to communicate. How that is to be achieved is often a matter of passionate disagreement. For some time now, there have been those who intentionally use corrupt typefaces or dense, dissonant and “dirty” layers of type and images in order to confront cliché and complacency. Too often, however, such strategies only obstruct comprehension without offering valid alternatives to assumptions about what constitutes legibility or good design or beauty. Of course, adherence to classic standards does not guarantee a beautiful result, nor do unconventional uses of type render a design “ugly.” One has only to see the lucid and lyrical use of typographic scale and structure by a designer as gifted as Jennifer Sterling to perceive the potential beauty of a radical visual language.

But what is beauty? The answer depends a great deal upon time and place and the individual. Our eyes are schooled to recognize and admire the beauty of certain things — like seashells or stars or stone cathedrals — and to be blind to others. Concepts of beauty are embedded in the system of symbolic forms we call culture just as design reflects its cultural — and commercial — context.

Here, in what we blithely call western civilization, we have inherited standards of beauty from Greek philosophers, Renaissance merchants and the early European modernists. The Renaissance in particular used the human body as a primary reference for form and thus unity, symmetry and proportion were its standards of beauty. The irregular charm of asymmetry or intentional imperfection appeared late in the West as an aesthetic transplant from the East — the seductive organic form of Isamu Noguchi’s iconic coffee table being just one example.

But to note that attributes of beauty are culturally grounded is not to deny that the experience of beauty appears to be common to human beings across time and geography. It does not dilute the aesthetic power of a designed object — Calatrava’s Alamillo bridge, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair or the elegant graphics of Massimo Vignelli — and its offer of a valuable if variable mode of engagement with the world of forms. Surely all of us have been surprised by beauty, captivated and held immobile for a moment in wonder and even joy. Such an experience helps to give meaning to our lives whether or not we know the true source of its spell.

As anthropologist Clifford Geertz suggests in his essay Art as a Cultural System, perhaps nothing very measurable would happen to our society if we no longer concerned ourselves with elegance of line and harmonies of color, the shapeliness of objects or the magical play of light and space. Chances are, society would not fall apart just as we could go on without those things that many of us treasure like the books of our childhood or the songs of our youth. But it is just possible that with disuse, our ability to perceive beauty could fade and eventually disappear and life would surely be the greyer for it.[3] Maybe we need to reclaim beauty just as we reclaim the abandoned places and discarded materials of our consumer culture.

It could be argued that designers must put aside beauty for the moment to concentrate on working with scientists, engineers, business leaders and governments to design immediate practical solutions to the current economic slump and the potential environmental disaster. But surely we want to save our forests, waters and creatures not only so that we can go on making more and more stuff (although modern societies do depend on making a certain amount of stuff ), but also because these things are beautiful and restorative to the mind and spirit. Perhaps the neglect of the natural world, beautiful in its orchestral complexity and wholeness, is a corollary to the neglect of beauty.

The perception of nature’s sublime beauty deepens and widens our sense of life, restores buoyancy and reminds us that we are all on “spaceship earth” together. We can use design to get us where we want to go on that spaceship and champion beauty in art, architecture and design to make it worth the trip. Without apology, we can reach towards ideals of beauty just as we can turn solemnly to the task of using design to forge a sustainable society and guard the future of our grandchildren.

The question is not whether beauty is merely an occasion for monastic contemplation, but whether beauty has a place in design practice and what exactly that place may be. Once, designers were thought of as mere stylists; today they are required to lead “innovation processes.” Perhaps they can also be active participants in the shaping of culture, bringing ideas and ideals, passion and yes, beauty, to the adventure of our collective life in a new century. As French designer Pierre Bernard famously said, “Be rational. Demand the impossible.”

Penny Benda is an experienced freelance writer and editor who crafts copy across an array of print and electronic media. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, her clients have ranged from high-profile hotels and hospitality groups to top furniture manufacturers. Penny attended the San Francisco State University. In 1990 she began her career as freelance copywriter in the marketing and advertising industry.


Design Does Matter is an anthology of essays by noted design professionals, scholars and writers – each with his or her own angle of vision, but who hold in common the conviction that design does indeed, matter.

This book is the third in a series of hardbound volumes published by Teknion. It contains 26 thoughtful and provocative entries by prominent designers, architects, business leaders, environmentalists and others who embrace design as a force in commerce and culture.