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What is beauty? And do nosotros need it in fine art and design?

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

What is dazzler? Well, beauty is a six-letter word, and a loaded 1, especially when it comes to working in the artistic industries, simply, while there’s the quondam aphorism that information technology’s ‘in the middle of the beholder’, some debate that what is (and isn’t beautiful) is far from subjective.

The Oxford Dictionary defines beauty as “A combination of qualities, such every bit shape, colour, or form, that pleases the artful senses, specially the sight.” Only nosotros all know it’southward more than that: we often say a person is beautiful, or that they accept a beautiful soul.

Beauty, and so, is nebulous – it isn’t dependent on sure aesthetic qualities, but has a deeper resonance that’s more about feeling than composition or colour. If it were that simple, nosotros’d all make things that were universally agreed to be beautiful. (If you want to focus on your own creations, see our guide to oil painting techniques, or our how to draw tutorials).

What is beauty?

Maria-Alina Asavei is a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher in Russian and East European Department at the Institute of International Studies at Charles Academy in Prague and an contained curator of contemporary art. “Nosotros frequently neglect to make clear what nosotros mean by ‘dazzler’, fifty-fifty if we use this word quite oft, in all kinds of occasions, related to art or not,” she writes in the essay Beauty and Critical Art: is beauty at odds with critical–political date?.

Asavei continues: “When nosotros appreciate that something has dazzler, we implicitly have that X is a source of positive aesthetic value or positive aesthetic appreciation. In the history of philosophical aesthetics, there are many theories and definitions of beauty. Despite differences, most of these theories connect the feel of the beautiful with a certain type of pleasure and enjoyment.”

what is beauty

Alan Moore, in a suitably beautiful setting

(Paradigm credit: Alan Moore)

Nonetheless many would contend that by our very nature, there’due south a certain universal set of indices that inform dazzler. Alan Moore, a former designer and typographer who worked under the mentorship of letterpress guru Alan Fletcher and in roles including head of art at Publicis in London, now focuses his entire career on beauty in design, and its function in successful businesses.

All the same, his take on beauty isn’t about what something looks similar: he often speaks about information technology in terms of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Dirac’south theorem, spirituality and the laws of nature. “At an atomic level, everything is connected; they dance and are attracted to one another at a nuclear level. The law of nature seeks things to be made of symmetry and harmony, and fifty-fifty in opposites they’re complementary: we have night and day, upwards and down. We’re all made of the same stuff molecularly, so we intuit dazzler – we know it to be the life-enhancing force.”

As a designer, your duty is to just bring skillful things into the earth

As such, Moore sees beauty not just as symmetry, only every bit regeneration: the first police force of thermodynamics, as well known as Law of Conservation of Free energy, states that free energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy tin can just exist transferred or changed from one form to some other. This is intrinsically related to proficient design. “It’s virtually the thought of bringing good into the world and regeneration,” Moore says. “People really connect to the idea of cute people considering it relates to values, it relates to ethics. You accept to think virtually if someone asked yous equally a designer, ‘Is that the most beautiful determination we could make?’ If you see that, then as a designer, your duty is to only bring practiced things into the world.”

Is beauty useful?

These are big concepts, only are increasingly ones that designers have to think about in times of climate crisis and political turmoil. They’re as crucial (and as such, as “beautiful”) as how skillful their blazon looks, or which Pantone they’ll select.

Information technology’south also nigh utility: Moore points out that “Mother Nature works with purpose in everything she does.” In legendary designer Paul Rand’south 1947 book Thoughts on Pattern he stated that, “Ideally, beauty and utility are mutually generative”; the combination of both is when you attain the pinnacle of pattern. “Visual communications of whatever kind… should be seen as the embodiment of class and function: the integration of the beautiful and the useful.”

While this doesn’t help us to define what is and isn’t beautiful, information technology does underscore the notion of beauty as beingness a concept nosotros all empathize, just that tin be mutable and dependent on context. Asavei echoes this view: “What nosotros know about an outcome or object and our globe-view and moral values always determine our perception most what is beautiful, why it is beautiful, and what is not beautiful.”

what is beauty?

Will this be considered cute in one hundred years?

(Image credit: Paper)

Information technology goes without saying that what is and isn’t considered beautiful has changed throughout history, whether in art, design or the man class (for women in particular – think fetishising plumpness when it signified wealth during the Renaissance era; 90s “heroin chic” waifs; today’s Kardashian-esque big ass, little waist, big lips).

At ane terminate of the historical beauty-definition spectrum is the “rational understanding of beauty and the search to boil down the essence into formulae and models for awarding,” as Alan Powers, a design author and professor of architecture and cultural history at the University of Greenwich puts information technology in Beauty: A Brusk History.

This was seen during the Renaissance when the prevailing conventionalities around beauty was that it was based on numbers “akin to the harmonies of music and the movements of the planets”. At the other end is a far more romanticised notion, such as the Middle Ages’ view of beauty as office of the “divine order” or poet John Keats’ “dazzler is truth, truth beauty” from his Ode on a Grecian Urn.

Then Modernism came along: everything was stripped dorsum to its nearly basic components and that continues to play a huge role in today’s frequently Swiss-leaning, filigree-loving design education. Information technology was the far-reaching cultural shifts (at least in the Western earth) of the rise of Modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that saw the before decorative values of pattern and opulent lettering styles in print, or the decorative flourishes of architecture that had formerly dominated, autumn out of favour. It also saw a swift shift toward pared-based blueprint and prioritised rigid proportions and functionality.

This marked the start of an underlying reluctance to encompass dazzler as a core value, which continues to this day. The thought of beauty, to many, is (perhaps subconsciously) seen every bit trite or onetime-fashioned – an aesthetic principle at odds with the rigid frameworks of 21st century design. The divisive Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones wrote a slice in 2012 virtually the rejection of beauty in contemporary art, which aligned this view with far older beliefs that “beauty is the most dangerous idea in fine art… It tantalises and confuses, inspires and crushes”, and that “dazzler has been worshipped equally the highest creative value and denigrated every bit a pagan temptation.”

The value of beauty

what is beauty

Beauty isn’t in the eyes of the beholder, argues this book

(Epitome credit: Sagmeister & Walsh)

Yet in design, it’southward not so much nearly “infidel temptation” or danger, just a focus on problem-solving, form-following-function, conceptual rigour and evolutions in technology that drive how interfaces, software and fifty-fifty print design are viewed. Every bit grids and rules came in, beauty in its more traditional sense went out. Equally Alan Powers puts it, “The ideal of pure geometry remains deeply rooted in western consciousness equally the ground of dazzler. It sits well with the idea that beauty is an skillful business, not accessible to the untrained listen.”

However, i designer who consistently rail against the notion that beauty is unimportant, subjective or “not accessible to the untrained listen” is Stefan Sagmeister. In his talks and the book Sagmeister & Walsh: Beauty, created with Jessica Walsh, he uses numerous scientific and cultural examples to signal out that beauty is far from being “in the eye of the beholder” (he points out the phrase only came to prominence thanks to a line stating every bit such in Margaret Wolfe Hungerford’due south 1878 novel Molly Bawn.)

In talks, Stefan has shown his audience a slide with five different colours, some other with five dissimilar shapes, and asked people to vote for their favourite. The results are almost identical wherever and whenever he does this (turns out circles and blue or majestic come up out top). Sure, it’southward a crude experiment, just it says a lot about how our tastes are not as unique or subjective as we might have thought. Stefan ofttimes blames Modernism for the devaluation of beauty, and the suspicion that beautiful piece of work might non be taken seriously, or derided as just decorative or commercial.

what is beauty

Inside Sagmeister & Walsh’s volume

(Image credit: Sagmeister & Walsh)

To avoid this risk, the grid was firmly laid out in design schools equally the condom, make clean, rational solution, to the indicate that information technology became non-expressive to the exclusion of concrete beauty. Jan Tschichold – one of the most famous proponents of Modern ideals through his Die Neue Typographie – eventually went back on his espousal of modernist values, describing Modernism as “inherently authoritarian and fascist”, and a mode that had become a “default” that lacked wit and innovation.

The public will respond to whatsoever attempt to rehabilitate beauty

Jan Tschichold

Although his text is still a staple in design education, Tschichold went farther, saying that a designer doesn’t take to be inventive or innovative to create design work based around the grid. Despite this apparent ongoing renunciation for many designers of beauty as a priority, “there is every reason to work with information technology over again,” says Powers. He cites MORI research that showed “the public values beauty and not but wants it in their homes, dress and other personal belongings, simply also in the great outdoors, the public realm and public life… especially in these hard times, the public will respond to any attempt to rehabilitate dazzler.” Designers, accept note!

Alan Moore’s views echo this, and brand a instance for the importance of beauty in commercial design: “Dazzler is a powerful quality for a business concern to have,” he wrote in The Business Instance for Beauty, originally published in Management Today. “People experience the world qualitatively, non quantitatively… a Temkin survey shows that customers with a positive emotional experience of a visitor are 6 times more likely to buy more, 12 times more probable to recommend and 5 times more probable to forgive a mistake.” This, clearly, defies whatsoever suspicions that beauty in creative piece of work has no function, or serves a merely decorative purpose.

Alan Moore’s commitment to preaching the values of the beautiful was built-in of a “road to Damascus” moment, he says. This arrived after many years working for various organisations and agencies and his view that there was a “grade of myopia in the way they were working: making coin at whatever cost until information technology price them everything,” he says. “I got very angry at the greed across incumbent industries, whether they were Telly, radio or print. I thought ‘this is not okay, we’re supplanting the idea that a good life is one built-in out of material consumption – nothing to do with the wealth of life’.”

If there are then many cases in favour of beautiful blueprint, why then in contempo years and even decades accept nosotros seen designers move towards not just function over form, but deliberately “ugly” blueprint: the post-ironic ambivalent of typefaces and so on? We’d suggest that this is because such work isn’t in fact ugly at all when information technology’s done well, but what we mean by dazzler has radically shifted.

Nature and beauty

Alan Moore points out that if everything in nature is beautiful, and that nature thrives on diversity and regeneration, and then how we view what is and isn’t beautiful or aesthetically highly-seasoned will patently shift over time. Therefore, the notion of beauty every bit either a representation of subjective, aesthetic pleasure or something purely artful with little intellectual or conceptual underpinning, is something that the designers who consider their role every bit but “problem solving” might want to rethink.

Indeed, Jonathan points out that artwork that shuns dazzler may well exist in vogue; but one time nosotros’ve “await[ed] at it earnestly,” nosotros then go and look at gorgeous photos, films, magazines – the true art of our time.” With then much of the commercial artistic landscape responsible for such imagery, this suggests that a groovy editorial layout or careful pick of typefaces, a well-art directed campaign, or even a brand film has equally much need for beauty equally an artwork simply created for art’s sake.

what is beauty

Dazed Dazzler

(Epitome credit: Dazed Beauty)

One newish platform pushing radically new and innovative ideas around what’s beautiful is Mazed Beauty. Launched in late 2018, and art directed by Ben Ditto, who’s also creative managing director of Ditto Publishing, with creative management from Isamaya Ffrench, the pair brought a more than internet-led, fantasy-like, occasionally gore/horror-inspired look to the platform.

The platform stated its mission as “celebrating identity, self-expression and inventiveness through the transformational ability of beauty.” This means aslope roofing faces and products, at that place’south a considerable focus on art. Pieces range from the sexuality of maternal women to nipple removal and other “extreme body modification” to profiles on artistic coders and an creative person who claims that we’re “already living in a video game”.

Dazzler is personal, and platforms like Instagram accept helped people to leverage beauty on their terms

Nellie Eden

This idea of inventiveness and cocky-expression every bit integral to beauty has meant the blueprint of the site is thoroughly futuristic, using gloopy metallic type that floats effectually the pages, lurid neon dark-green lines to suspension upward the site’s grid and sections that are predominantly image-led, conspicuously taking a cue or two from sure image-sharing platforms. It’southward a far cry from the usual expect of dazzler or fashion publications: all clean, neat layouts; white infinite, femininity and mastheads set in black, traditional serif capitals. “This is beauty for the social media age,” equally Ffrench puts it.

“Beauty is personal, and platforms like Instagram have helped people to leverage beauty on their terms,” says Mazed Beauty’s editor Nellie Eden. “Our design is informed past the convergence of the beauty and the tech industries. When we talk about beauty it’s non nearly products or who’s the face of YSL – information technology’s what a teenager in Poland is doing with his contact lenses.”

what is beauty

Dazed Beauty’s logo

(Epitome credit: Dazed Beauty)

Eden continues: “Dazed Beauty has a distinctive personality: you can put something on Instagram that people find disgusting or appalling or strange, and that’southward fantastic, because beauty imagery has become then sanitised so far from what it ways to exist human… We always say make it weirder or more digressive or obscure.” These presentations of futurity-facing, deliberately “weirder” or “appalling” takes on what is beautiful doesn’t mean that dazzler needn’t be a consideration for designers – quite the contrary – but it does mean they need to dig deep to remember near what could make their work more than beautiful, and their arroyo to doing then.

Beauty, states Powers, is “cultivated through a deeper understanding of what we already take, and by looking subsequently and affectionate the unique characteristics of the places where nosotros live.” He adds, “nosotros should commit ourselves to living amend on less. Perhaps the key matter is to have the conviction to say dazzler matters, and not to be afraid of the reaction.” But it’s not simply about these deeper philosophies, or trend-bucking.

In Sagmeister and Walsh’s book, they state the example that attending to form (in other words, dazzler) in turn makes a blueprint more functional. Beautiful packaging design, for instance, sells better. Moore firmly backs this: “Dazzler as a frame, philosophy, language even, shows how to build businesses that are more relevant and needed in the world we all live in today: businesses that build legacy, that go beyond sustainability, that are places the best people want to piece of work for, and that deliver outstanding customer feel, all of which translates into long-term growth and profitability.”

Alan Moore too argues that rather than form making something more than functional, “beauty flows from purpose”, citing companies such as Patagonia as exemplary in attracting artistic talent and constructive decision-making and leadership through the sense of purpose embedded across the business. To him, dazzler isn’t but about design or even design teams: it’s about a workplace civilisation congenital around generosity and positivity. This in turn brings deeper engagement with the tasks at hand, trust and overall better well-beingness.

It’s also virtually sustainability, for both the business and the world: Moore states that “beautiful businesses… take less, brand better with less and waste aught” – they are “regenerative, existing as part of living systems rather than trying to disrupt or destroy them.” Moore adds, “Beauty isn’t incompatible with rigour. It won’t hurt your bottom line or your return on equity to take a beautiful business with a beautiful culture, making beautiful products. Indeed, in the long term information technology could be one of your greatest assets.”

what is beauty

Which one is most beautiful?

(Image credit: Sagmeister & Walsh)

To make more than beautiful design runs deeper than the images you put into the world, it’s about the social purpose of what y’all’re doing and how you’re running your creative business. So if we run with the idea that beauty remains vital to design, but the foundations of what is seen as “beautiful” are more mutable than ever, how as a designer do you brand more than beautiful work?

Describing dazzler every bit “the sweet spot between club and chaos” (rather than the Modernist designers’ rejection of chaos of whatever form); Sagmeister and Walsh use the equation M = O/C to decide on something’s dazzler (beauty, M, is the ratio of Organization (O) to Complexity (C).) Whether a commission requires simplicity, ornamentation or boundary-pushing prototype-making, beauty is, and e’er will exist vital.

In an age where designers increasingly see AI and other tech innovations gradually making gains on the grub piece of work of design, one thing that computers will never exist able to do is judge an innate, more nebulous sense of what is beautiful. Beauty is innately related to humanity, and whatever face you put on information technology, computers will never exist truly human.

This commodity originally appeared in issue 300 of

Figurer Arts
, the world’s leading design magazine.

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Emily Gosling is a freelance art and design journalist currently writing for titles including Creative Review, Eye on Design, Creative Boom and People of Print. She’southward previously worked at Elephant magazine, Information technology’due south Nice That and Design Week, and was editor of Type Notes mag. Her volume Creative Minds Don’t Think Alike was published by Ilex Printing in 2018, and she also plays bass every bit 1-quarter of the eight-titted beast, Superstation Twatville.

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