The Architecture of Meaning: Aesop
Observations on the vocabulary of forms that manifest brand meanings.
Aesop is an Australian skincare company founded in 1987 that has since architected and expressed one of the most Beautiful brand programs in history.
This is not because Aesop is a part of the beauty industry; rather, its product, service, and communication designs have been so cohesively aligned in expressing core, transcendent principles. As a product company, it has consistently demonstrated an approach of revealing value rather than trying to sell it. In this sense, Aesop transcends beauty brands because it is seemingly more interested in the pursuit of beauty’s higher value: Beauty.
Beyond its external successes of arguably industry-leading product quality, corporate ethics, design awards, and organizational commitment to excellence, Aesop’s internal unity in concept and values has established a highly valuable material and organizational imprint that few product brands resemble.
Why this kind of observation matters
The observation of a brand’s vocabulary of forms is meant to illustrate the resonant meanings that an object or experience can impart to people by deeply grounding its methodology in values. In essence, close attention helps you understand the sources of what you see and feel.
In addition to creating material value, contemporary brands face the challenge (or, have the opportunity) to create value in meaning — the context for the objects they produce. Brands have historically utilized various forms of attractively-designed appearances to simulate differentiation and convey meanings, but some (Aesop, as an example) operate at higher levels of philosophical principle that, in turn, enliven the entire experience of the “brand” far beyond the visual facade it presents. This approach of deep brand design is described in Rethinking Prestige Branding as the “inverted iceberg” and in design anthropological terms as the “cultural iceberg.” Whichever iceberg you prefer, the concept metaphorically illustrates the importance of deep-seated and unified values which inform the cultural artifacts (the products) that the human organization designs and presents above the “surface.”
In a consumer brand’s case, the objects and experiences it creates ring truest when they intimately express unity with the deep-seated orientations and values of the larger cultural and brand concept.
My international, values-led observations
Having traveled to many Aesop signature stores around the world, I began to wayfind around the deeper meanings and patterns of expression I perceived within Aesop’s environments. This personal attunement, in combination with the parallel pursuit of philosophy books, highlighted deeper features of the brand “iceberg” which led me to understand the company through a far greater degree of respect and value. I have since moved to the cultural and organizational birthplace in Melbourne, Australia with interest in learning more.
Aesop’s high aptitude in the realm of manifesting philosophy isn’t so much of a surprise as it is uniquely fascinating in a product company. The brand’s founder, Dennis Paphitis, has suggested he simply “wasn’t patient enough to be a philosopher, nor tolerant enough to be an architect.” What he and his team have done is fuse the two approaches together to create a masterful architecture of meaning.
The architecture of meanings I’ve felt...
The following are a few purely personal observations of Aesop experiences, and a testament to how products and experiences can form their physical value by manifesting deeper philosophical values.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic philosophy or worldview that fundamentally favors imperfection in Beauty. As Leonard Koren describes in Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, the philosophical approach is sensitive toward the “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”
In contrast to the Western ideals of Beauty in pristine perfection, Aesop manifests the meanings and values of the wabi-sabi worldview throughout its ethos, product, and service, creating a thoroughly aligned architecture of meaning.
- The wabi-sabi approach toward Beauty admires imperfect beauty as a key feature of honest living. “The Aesop approach is liked by real women for whom the fantasy of the traditional beauty industry is too extreme,” stated Jo Nagasaka, project architect for the brand. Aesop’s overall skin care “look” aims for a lo-fi approach with focus on healthy complexion and care rather than broadcasting social messages and meanings of hi-fi glamour and concealment.
- In alignment with this non-idealized philosophy of Beauty is Aesop’s approach toward gender expectations within society, such that its communications and products are relatively gender-neutral. With unisex packaging, there are no idealized meanings presented within Aesop materials about what masculinity or femininity should aspire to be beyond a man/woman’s current, authentic self. In fact, there are barely any people portrayed in official brand imagery. In stark industry context, consider the social meanings (though silly) that a shampoo product like Axe’s “Armor” attempts to propagate in men.
- Much of Aesop’s packaging deconstructs as you use it, encouraging the “life” of personal ageing with a well-cherished item. This deeply philosophically-rooted, user-to-product relationship is presented in Aesop’s iconic product photography (seen below). These images are clearly focused on the product, yet still suggestive of the natural human touch. Through this values-driven packaging design, Aesop communicates wabi-sabi values of imperfect, patina-rich beauty rather than the inflexible perfection typically portrayed in competitor products. Some Aesop stores’ product displays upcycle the company’s imperfect/spare productions (tubes with slightly misprinted ink tone, for example), additionally expressing the meaning of “imperfect beauty.”
- Guests of Aesop locations are warmly offered a cup of tea upon visiting, a subtle nod to the multi-sensory and highly reverent Japanese tea ceremony. The signature store teacups embody similar proportional sizes to many classic wabi-sabi teacups.
- Aesop consultants handle credit cards and currency with two hands and always walk around the store counter to present purchased goods in a two-handed delivery. These gestures express values of graciousness and respect, foundational to Japanese culture.
- The careful consideration of light within store environments has always been intriguing. Somewhat of an illustration of the Japanese aesthetic treatise on light, In Praise of Shadows, Aesop consistently invests in custom-made lighting solutions to create a poetic interplay of light and shadow. This, again, by virtue of a philosophical approach, stands in contrast from many retailers with all-lights-on policies.
Robin Boyd and “The Australian Ugliness”
In The Australian Ugliness, Australian architect Robin Boyd railed against the concept of Featurism, or the destruction of “any unified entity… by isolating parts, breaking up simple planes, interrupting straight lines, and applying gratuitous extra items wherever he fears the eye may be tempted to rest.”
In his 1960 manifesto, perhaps Robin Boyd had an inkling of what Aesop was about to do in Australia just a few decades later: “It takes an assured product and a confident advertiser coolly presenting unassailable facts to produce a functional design, a genuine style and a calm advertisement. These are things which are so rare as to be noteworthy whenever they appear in the Australian street, kitchen, magazine, or newspaper.”
In the vein of a flat, Albert Camus-esque “white style,” Aesop’s laboratory-inspired packaging has aimed to communicate nothing but the “unassailable facts” (ingredient list and prescribed usage) in a unified concept.
Others have seemed to admire the design’s visual concentration.
This consistent*, plain packaging style philosophically achieves several things when expressed as a complete concept:
- In concert with Boyd’s architectural outlook in The Australian Ugliness, Aesop product design uses the principle of consistency to reduce any visual shouting-match with customers: “They (houses) seem to be built of similar materials and they sit amicably together among the trees because none tries to dominate… The visitor can seek out the front door he wants, but all front doors don’t seek him out.”
- Two unmistakable, formal focuses — on product form and interior form — ensure that a store visitor’s visual journey is clearly defined. The understated packaging creates clear aesthetic contrast to the expressiveness of the uniquely-designed interior architecture of the store.
- The often uniform, not priced, odd-numbered merchandise layouts also implicitly initiate Aesop’s warm service experience to guide the customer through the otherwise reserved layout. This physical quietness heightens the contrast to the lively personal warmth of the service offered by the staff.
*I still haven’t quite determined why a select few of Aesop’s products (i.e. mouthwash, fragrances) aren’t in complete unison with the primary labeling concept. Perhaps these are ancillary, exploratory products outside of the primary range, and presented as separate “Objects.” It is a lingering question with backstory somewhere…
In overall support of my initial observations of Aesop’s commitment to a higher concept, Boyd remarks in architectural terms, “The important thing here is the fact that the houses always have some idea and are thus united in the higher order of ideas… all things made with an idea and integrity can sit happily together, however different they look…” Given the specific consistency of aesthetic across multiple product categories, years in business, and territories of operation, Aesop is relatively peerless in its conceptual pursuit of material Beauty over ugliness.
Philosophical Awareness of Value and Quality
I have heard this quote from signature store staff several times and it’s always interesting: “Aesop truly understands value, and how to make people feel valued.” This is, basically, the service quality gauntlet being thrown down for the retail industry. It’s also an indicator of the holistic approach in the way Aesop approaches the manifestation of Quality and Value, a domain more largely pursued by philosophy. As Matteo Martignoni (Country Manager at Aesop) shared in Rethinking Prestige Branding, “From the beginning this brand decided that nobody should be ‘sold-to’, which means pushing products to customers and promising them those product will do whatever they wish.” Aesop consistently reveals value rather than uses salesmanship. The products themselves do all of the cajoling.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes the cultural disease of myopic appreciation that focuses only the surface experience of objects:
“The nature of our culture is such that if you were to look for instruction in how to do any of these jobs, the instruction would always give only one understanding of Quality, the classic. It would tell you how to hold the blade when sharpening the knife, or how to mix and apply glue with the presumption that once these underlying methods were applied, ‘good’ would naturally follow. The ability to see directly what ‘looks good’ would be ignored.”
Aesop indirectly, yet directly, responds to this condition in its brand communications, most notably with statements like, “We advocate the use of our products as part of a balanced life that includes a healthy diet, sensible exercise, a moderate intake of red wine, and a regular dose of stimulating literature.” Their expression here dances with the design innovation question Roberto Verganti raises in his book, Design Driven Innovation: “How could people give meaning to things in this evolving life context?” By framing its worldview, Aesop sets up a larger context of meaning and value, one that expresses confidence and humility around its product given the larger “consumer value” in Aesop’s vision: the pursuit of a life well lived, care for your skin included.
Through language across the experience, Aesop communicates expressions of high value. A few examples are:
- Thought-provoking philosophical quotes around store interiors and on product packaging raise conscious experience by inducing a sense of contemplation.
- A characteristic of many well-designed brands, measured service vocabulary like the word choice of “scalp” instead of “head” fine-tunes conversational environments.
- Product knowledge examples such as “the scent is incidental” focus the interpretation of product value on the efficacy of care and quality materials rather than the value of add-on/surface sheen that customers might otherwise commonly use to interpret competitor products.
Some specific physical expressions of high value include:
- A certain way to do everything, down to the most well-trained gift wrapping process I’ve seen. This is a key ritual (caring for and protecting the product) that amplifies the culture’s expression of value for its artifact.
- Exclusive experiences in certain physical spaces (the “velvet rope” concept as defined in Rethinking Prestige Branding) such as facial treatment consultations and signature product offerings at distinct locations. I’ve even heard the historical company story of Aesop stores once hiding their most popular products (hand balms) to invite customers to widen their horizons within the product range.
Presenting new meanings to the world…
Presenting new meanings to the world matters because it transcends beyond the material consumption value of which first-world societies are mostly over-stuffed. Organizations that connect at a deeper, higher level of value reveal their inventive meanings, expressions, and visions for seeing the world with a better, clearer perspective. As an Aesop-curated quote by Henry David Thoreau reminds, “The universe is wider than our views of it.”
Given these initial personal observations of Aesop’s experience, it will be interesting to see how the brand continues to manifest meanings and Beauty through the lens of its principles— not just for the beauty industry, but in contribution to the philosophical and aesthetic enlightenment of the consumer world at large.