Why Beauty Matters: Unexpected Learnings from a Refugee Camp
Margaret Gould Stewart

In Margaret Gould Stewart’s post on Medium she espouses the importance of beauty in software design, and does so very eloquently. Beauty is not an afterthought or a superfluous extravagance, it’s a core element of making products that people love, that work well, and that have longevity. The importance of classic Vitruvian virtues to software can’t be stated heavily enough — use without beauty is incomplete, and a lack of beauty can actually be detrimental to usability and usefulness.

As I’ve written about before, there is a close relationship between art and design. One of the strongest areas of overlap is aesthetics. Aesthetics is about more than just beauty, it’s about the understanding of beauty as an aspect of culture. Aesthetics helps us understand why we see something as beautiful and other things not. It gives us a language to start to define what beauty means to us, at this time, in different ways.

Margaret writes passionately about the need for beauty in software. If we want to get there we have to have a way to understand what “beauty” means. What is beautiful software?

Black Square, 1915, oil on linen, 79.5 x 79.5 cm

One place to start is to go back and look at how previous eras and practices defined the aesthetics of their time.

In “Design as Art” (1966) Bruno Munari outlines one of the dominant notions modernist of beauty:

“A leaf is beautiful not because it is stylish but because it is natural, created in its exact form by its exact function. A designer tries to make an object as naturally as a tree puts forth a leaf. … He helps the object … make itself by its own proper means, so that a ventilator comes to have just the shape of a ventilator…” (p. 31)

Wassily Chair, Marcel Breuer, 1925–1926. Photo by sailko

Munari, like many modernists of that era, believed that the role of the designer is to discover the “true” form of an object based entirely on function and human need, not on person taste or subjective styles. The style resulting from that belief is well known, and very popular, today. They relied on material properties, manufacturing innovation, and formal sense of ergonomics and use to drive design decisions. Of course each designer interpreted these inputs differently, which is how we ended up with many modernist chairs instead of the Platonic one-true-chair that they may have been aiming for. Pure objectivity isn’t really part of human nature after all, and modernists had their fair share of biases and perspectives.

Even considering all the flaws in their perspective, the fact that there was a perspective about what “good” meant for design at the time created a sense of quality. From a modernist point of view, the nature of beauty and quality could be described, debated, subverted, and identified in the things they produced.

The Modern era also gave us the notion of design foundations, an attempt to distill the fundamental elements of design into things that could be practiced and critiqued within the context of the current understanding of quality and beauty. Rowena Reed Kostellow codified foundations in her design curriculum at CMU and Pratt in the mid 20th century, with incredible lasting impact.

Foundations in graphic design, industrial design, and architecture lend those practices a formal language of technique - a way to productively discuss aesthetic impacts of design decisions. If I make my surface curve this way, what will that mean to the balance of the final object, and what does that balance say about the world? If I add a texture or contrasting colour to this part of the object how will it change people’s impression of the thing?

Foundations and notions of modernist beauty also gave rise to the predominant movement of the latter 20th century, post-modernism. In many ways post-modern aesthetics were a reaction to, and rejection of, the formalism and pragmatism of modernism. Post-modern designers and artists used a master of foundations to turn them on their head, creating a new sense of beauty in the mis-match of elements, pastiche from previous eras, and intentionally breaking formal rules of composition.

A post-modern pastiche chair. Part of the Fogo Island Inn furniture collection. Photo from Azure Magazine.

Post-modernism aims to free us from the constraints of modernist thinking, which can verge on fascist in its attempt to create the “one true form.” Post-modernism politicizes aesthetics, grounding it in history, culture, politics, relativism, and philosophy. Unlike modernism, there is no unifying view of the world, instead post-modernism emphasizes the differences and diversity in perspectives.

Jenny Holzer, For the City, projected on the Fifth Avenue side of the New York Public Library, October 6–9, 2005. Photo from Wikipedia

Jean Baudrillard gives us a great example of post-modern perspective in this quote from “The Vital Illusion” (2000):

“… since the world drifts into delirium, we must adopt a delirious point of view. We must no longer assume any principle of truth, of causality, or any discursive norm. Instead, we must grant both the poetic singularity of events and the radical uncertainty of events. … the most difficult thing is to renounce the truth and the possibility of verification, to remain as long as possible on the enigmatic, ambivalent, and reversible side of thought.”

This brings us to now — the software age. How do we define beauty for the things we make that live on networks, screens, embedded devices, and communities? Can we apply different aspects of modernism’s formality and post-modernism’s relativism to make sense of the complexity of software?

Software doesn’t have a single form. It is at once graphical (displayed on two dimensional surface) and interactive (controls, inputs, feedback), solid and ephemeral… it has substance, but the form is ever changing and malleable.

In “The Language of New Media” (2000), Lev Manovich attempts to make sense of the aesthetic qualities unique to new media and software based representations. He defines the aesthetic aspects of software in five principles:

  • Numerical representation
  • Modularity
  • Automation
  • Variability
  • Transcoding
The Secret of Monkey Island, LucasArts, 1990. Early video games serve as a great example of Manovich’s principles applied to narrative.

Each principle builds on the previous one, helping us to understand how to think about the qualities of new media in contrast to traditional media. He explores the inherent formal, almost modernist, aspects of digital media. Now that media (i.e. images) is encoded as numeric data rather than analog forms (i.e. film), how does that change the material properties of the media? How do artists and designers begin to use these new properties to change how media reflects and impacts culture? If a film can be automated and programmed to be different for every viewer, what is the cultural aesthetic impact of that change? Manovich argues that these changes fundamentally change the way we understand media. In simple terms we can see this transformation impacting culture in the way services like Netflix allow random access to movies and tv rather than sequential and continuous broadcast. This is only possible because the nature of the media has become digital, modular, automatable, and variable.

The same could be said about our transition from print to the web as a primary source of consuming the written word. Hypertext, search, and networked feeds have fundamentally changed our understanding of media, and this is the result of a digification of everything. The digital media has different fundamental properties that allow for a higher level of interconnectedness, distribution, and density.

Berg’s interface for The Michael Thomas iPhone App. Read more about the design process and rationale.

In this vein, I would argue that we could talk about software aesthetics as the ability the software has to expose and make sense of the underlying networks, connections, and capabilities. We might ask questions like these to explore the aesthetics of a software system:

  • How does the software empower people, or not? What is the person’s agency in the system?
  • How does it communicate its capabilities, states, and feedback?
  • What kind of conversations does it facilitate between people, machines, and algorithms?

In the answers we may find beauty.

Beautiful software needs to incorporate graphical beauty using elements like balance, harmony, colour, contrast, hierarchy, and visual relationships. It needs to embody the beauty inherent in a physical object’s affordances and natural state of usefulness — it needs to indicate how it is used. It needs to expose the beauty of the network — the beauty of connections and feedback, of loops, of capabilities and superpowers.

Software is a tool, an environment, a community, a gateway, and more. The software’s surface, it’s interface, will be beautiful when it reflects the nature, and beauty, of the system beneath and helps people navigate their place within it.