Designed Aesthetic

Veiled Considerations of Nature’s Spectacle


What makes something look good? A simple question with a complex answer. I feel that nature — considered by many to be the original aesthete— may provide clues; its visuals inspired the first pieces of cultural production and still serve as a muse today in everything from life drawing to product design.

Natural randomness is in fact a confluence of forces, and I suspect tacit knowledge of this hidden consideration gives natures spectacle its sublime quality. I find the turbulent juxtaposition of conflicting forces to be fascinating and evocative; mountains pushed up through the collusion of continental plates and ground down by erosion, a wave born in the wind to die on the beach, a river rock laid bare by the water’s gentle caress. This conflict gives form to a beautiful chaos, and embodies it in a natural artifact.

A well designed object is like the river rock, a raw thing given form through a confluence of affordance, product requirements, and manufacturing constraints, with the friction of a strong critique sculpting the final result.

I think that great teams, great products, and great companies are able to integrate these antagonistic forces in a positive way. Apple had Steve Jobs, by all accounts a powerful antagonistic force, throwing an iPod in a fish tank during a critique to demonstrate how there was still plenty of room to make it smaller (the bubbles flowing from the device indicated the empty space within) tearing things down with such intensity produced extremely refined results. I think the confluence of two potent forces, Jobs on one side and a talented design team on the other, created the perfect storm that gave birth to the beautiful objects which have come to define a generation of consumer products.

The same laws apply to a wide variety of cultural production. If you make an arbitrary creative decision instead of a considered one you end up distracting from what you are intending to say, or could say.

We do not actively read intention the way the leaves fall on the ground, or the distribution of stones on a beach, but have a tacit appreciation for it. I think this understanding is actually the result of an extremely sophisticated evaluation of visual information which goes on behind the scenes; an evaluation which can work for a creative piece or against it.

How these principals might apply to creative work:

  1. Never attempt to directly author a random result, instead create a set of conditions or forces which interact to produce that result.
  2. When developing form think about how that shape might come to be, and how the surfaces work against one another or in concert.
  3. A better critique means a more refined result. Giving effective critique is a valuable skill which cannot be over emphasized.
  4. A design solution should act against a system of problems, declaring what it is and defying what it is not. A force without opposition is a straight line, when we introduce other forces it becomes a curve, a path, a fascinating thing to follow.

I feel we may also apply this philosophy outside of design and throughout the rest of our lives. By pushing against what exists, be it an object, institution, way of thinking, or our own perceived limitations, we give birth to the sublime. The friction of opposition gives form to new solutions, which will create new friction and forms we cannot yet imagine. In pushing against who we are we create who we could be, by doing what is uncomfortable now we expand what is possible tomorrow. The chaos of antagonism breaks us down, wears away our weaknesses and shapes us into unique and beautiful entities, the rocks in the river.