In defense of “how it looks”

Posted by Rob Walker on March 26, 2010
Posted Under: "Good Design" (Tyranny of),The Designed Life

Raise the subject of aesthetics when you’re wondering aloud about design, and somebody is sure to pipe up and say something along the lines of “Design isn’t how it looks; it’s how it works.” This is true — but false. True: A great-looking product that does not work is indeed Bad Design and will fail in the marketplace. And yet: Please show me a product or object hailed by the design elite as Good that doesn’t just so happen to be aesthetically pleasing. (To the design elite, anyway.) “How it looks,” in other words, matters, both to the critics and to the market.

Julie Lasky has an essay on Design Observer, Superbeauty, that is very much about “how it looks.” She contends that “beauty” has made a comeback in the 21st century, and evidence can be found in the design world; the essay is in connection with an exhibition called The State of Things: Design in the 21st Century, for which she co-curated a set of objects under the heading Super Beauty:

The category is based on the premise that nothing in today’s domestic environment is too modest or obscure to be prettified: sink strainers, dish soap packages, extension cords, humidifiers, radiators, computer components, fire extinguishers. It is as if contemporary designers have vowed to make an utter sweep of domestic inventory and leave nothing unpleasing to the eye.

The rest of her essay is here. I can’t speak with the sort of authority that Lasky can about this subject in the broader context of design and art criticism, so I was interested to get that perspective.

For what it’s worth, since the early days of Consumed I’ve addressed how I think “how it looks” makes a discernible difference in the marketplace. This 2004 column on the pleasing aesthetics of Method products could actually be read as a kind of cranky consumer-side response to the Superbeauty Lasky writes about: “Must even the most mundane household object rise up and join the tyranny of Good Design?”

Later, as it happens, I had a column on the IDEA Award-winning Home Hero Fire Extinguisher Lasky mentions. I found this interesting at the time because its designer positioned its good looks as downright virtuous. The contention was that it looked so good that it wouldn’t be hidden away and forgotten like an ugly fire extinguisher.

The essential claim that underlies the praise for the HomeHero — aesthetics save lives — is indicative of a broader shift. Once viewed with suspicion as source of planned obsolescence, a product’s looks have gradually come to be seen as creating value, pleasure and even quality. (Donald A. Norman, a Northwestern University professor and author of “Emotional Design” and other books, has famously argued that “attractive things work better.”) More recently, Prasad Boradkar, who teaches design at Arizona State University and was a member of this year’s IDEA judging panel, says he has noticed more designers, from students to professionals, positioning style as a form of “sustainability” — that is, if something looks good, we’re less likely to throw it away.

Under this theory, pure style not only dodges the critique that it causes a superfluous-consumption problem; it actually solves that problem. Of course, Boradkar adds, designers know that such claims won’t be taken seriously unless they are backed with substance. Still, this is the design argument that the HomeHero fits into: that good aesthetics can make a claim on virtue.

An interesting fact about the Home Hero, by the way, is that the IDEA judges didn’t actually handle or test it, they gave it an award based on images and material supplied by the designer. I mentioned that in the column, and got a note from somebody at IDEA saying that this practice was going to change and judges would be handling objects in the future. I suppose that’s happened by now. But in the case of the Home Hero’s design award, how it looked was, clearly, fairly important.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Rob Horning/Marginal Utility has worthwhile take on this, here:

Written By Rob Walker on March 27th, 2010 @ 11:18 am

“And yet: Please show me a product or object hailed by the design elite as Good that doesn’t just so happen to be aesthetically pleasing.”


Written By adnan. on April 2nd, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

Well that’s interesting, adnan. I don’t know that I’ve read anything in the design press praising craigslist, but I’d like to. I can imagine, actually, its minimal aesthetic being praised in that context (the design elite tends to love minimalist looks), but perhaps you are right that there is an example of a design critic saying that craigslist looks bad but it is still good design nonetheless. I just haven’t actually seen such a piece.

Thanks for the feedback.

Written By Rob Walker on April 4th, 2010 @ 9:12 am
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