Why are we attracted to beautiful things?
“We wear clothing and jewelry. We buy the biggest, most beautiful houses we can afford. We decorate our homes with furniture, rugs, prints, and gardens. We drive finely designed brightly colored automobiles, which we choose for their aesthetic appeal as much as their fuel efficiency. “
— Geoffrey Miller in the Mating Mind
I gawk at old stone buildings and the most vivid memories I have are of lush landscapes and forest clearings. I will opt to pay a premium for an app that looks “pretty,” and I am transfixed by websites with exquisite design.
I remember ridiculously well, I was 14 and my brother ordered his first Apple product (an iPod touch) and immediately called up two of his closest friends. He was inviting them over so they could watch him open the package. The three of them sat around mesmerized, by the beauty of the box and the way everything fit just so perfectly. They analyzed and commented, my brother removed layers of black plastic and small white instruction booklets. They were in absolute reverence at the beauty of the box and (of, course) the perfectly proportioned product.
Why did this box and this specific product garner such a reaction? What made it beautiful?
When it comes to objects and “things,” we agree on a few basic principles of beauty.
Simple objects are attractive.
We are attracted to simple, clutter-free, and minimalist design:
[High ceilings, simple geometric shapes]
Supposedly, the golden rectangle explains our attraction to “simple geometry” succinctly.
When you subtract a square from a golden rectangle you are left with another golden rectangle. 5 X 8 is the typical proportion. A few years ago blogger Julian Seidenberg unpacked the dimensions of the iPod…and you guessed it, it’s just slightly taller than the golden rectangle.
Symmetry makes it beautiful.
That’s exactly what this study at Berkeley found when they conducted psychophysical investigations of viewer’s aesthetic preference.
The researchers asked participants to choose the most attractive photo from a limited set of options. They also watched participants crop photos and asked them to take the most aesthetically appealing picture they could.
The results of the study showed that participants had a center bias, where the subject of the picture is in the center of the frame, like this:
And an inward bias, if the subject of the picture was intentionally off-center, participants had an aesthetic preference when the subject was looking inwards instead of outwards, like this:
When you see something beautiful its symmetry and its simplicity is, likely, in perfect harmony. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist, studies why human beings are attracted to such things. He states:
“The mind makes very little sense as a Swiss army knife or a military command center. It makes more sense as an entertainment system designed to stimulate other brains. ”
This makes sense to me. There was nothing mechanical about watching my brother unpacking his first iPod. It was pure entertainment. When you see/hold/touch/feel something beautiful the beauty of what you are viewing is entertaining your mind. And what you are feeling is, quite simply, pleasure.
(1) We feel a heightened state of pleasure because we are acknowledging effort.
Ellen Dissanayake, an anthropologist, at the University of Texas explains it this way:
“Artistic production entails effort, and effort is rarely expended without some adaptive rationale. Art is ubiquitous, and costly.”
We can extend Dissanayake’s definition of art to include beautiful design and beautiful objects. According to her theory, we have an appreciation for discipline, energy, and talent. As such, expending energy in creative endeavors indicates that there is an adaptive argument. The pleasure we feel is signalling something primative.
Miller suggests the pleasure felt upon experiencing a beautiful piece of artwork is connected to our sexual selection. Art enhances the fitness of the person who created the art.
The production of art then, is a natural extension of the ornaments that adorn the body (ex.: breasts, beards, and on).
To sum it up, this theory suggests the following: if you create beautiful things, you stimulate minds and deliver pleasure, and by proxy of your art you are attracting potential mates.
This pleasure also has a utilitarian side effect:
(2) When we feel a heightened state of pleasure, the object becomes easier to use. Beautiful things are easier to use.
This study looked at the flow of information from plane to brain and found that our eyes can scan an image the fastest when the image is in the shape of the golden rectangle.
For instance, Hosey, author of The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design, points out that the most ideal shape for a paragraph is the golden rectangle. You can read faster and store more information if it is. Try it for yourself:
The second paragraph has proportions similar to the golden rectangle.
Supposedly, even the old twitter interface had proportions extremely close to the golden rectangle:
Although, the golden rectangle appears to pop up in the most interesting places and offers a mathematical explanation to some things we find beautiful, Dr. Mario Livio argues otherwise. He offers, that many valuable and awe-inspiring pieces of art are those that have departed from the norm. It would be careless to argue that the golden rectangle explains “beauty” absolutely and irrefutably.
In spite of that, the golden rectangle often does show up in the objects and design we find beautiful.
Design engineer Don Norman has dedicated his life’s work to deconstructing the design of products, he states:
“Attractive things work better.”
The design needs to be in harmony with the usability of the product. “Efficient design” is quite often very beautiful. However, most often, an attractive product gives the impression of being more efficient. The product, beyond its utility should serve as an extension to pleasure.
[The Bento Box: a perfect example of simplicity, symmetry, aesthetics, and usability in harmony.]
We feel pleasure when we see something beautiful, making attractive things feel like they work better.
How can you bring more of the art-based pleasure in to your life?
(1) One way is to amp up the amount of beautiful things you view. (Re)introduce art in to your life, re-organize your workspace to be more aesthetically appealing, and on.
(2) Another way is to create.
“If we want to make meaning, we need to make art.” -Brene Brown
Invest time in the creation of beautiful things. Take the time, once per week to create: bake, draw, paint, dance — do what you need to do to feel creative.
If you’re in the business of creating, focus on the aesthetic, see what can be enhanced, re-evaluate the superficial, and go from there.The aesthetics of your service/product is much more than an added benefit. Creating a beautiful product delivers value. It signals to something innate and if you hit the right notes you’re giving pleasure to whomever experiences your creation (ex. my brother and his pals).