Creating for the Aesthic Obsessed – UX Planet
Also known as ‘aesthetically pleasing’
We’re all obsessed with aesthetics, at least in one way or another.
Some channel their obsession into work, some into their body and other into their homes. We’re visual creatures, there’s no disputing that, and whilst there’s plenty of sage advice telling us ‘not to judge books by their covers’ or that ‘beauty is only skin deep’ we continue (to this day) touse aesthetics as a means to judge and understand the world around us.
A simple example is the way we use aesthetics for labels and to gauge status
If I describe a tall male with glasses, slicked back hair and a beard, you’ll already be able to give this character a label. If I mention they’re wearing plaid trousers and a waist coat, then those aesthetics will carry a different connotation than the same character wearing a biker jacket and leathers.
Both aesthetically pleasing (at least to some) both labelled differently.
And with that, we have a nice segue to define what we mean by aesthetics. Aesthetics refers to beauty and the way we perceive beauty. This means that due to subjective nature of beauty, aesthetics are open to interpretation, as everyone’s definition of beauty is (to an extent) different. And it’s this idea of beauty that we’re all obsessed with, we simply have different outlets for our obsessions. Some outlets are defined as vain, some as detrimental and some completely unnoticed.
Why we’re so obsessed with aesthetics is difficult to pinpoint. It could be related to survival (think safer, cleaner habitats and stronger more fertile mates) or something much more sinister (like marketing and the mass media) but to be honest, the reason itself is irrelevant. All that’s relevant, is to understand the crux of the matter — aesthetics are important and we have to deal with this blessing/curse as designers/creators.
As such, here’s two important questions we need to answers:
- Are there univeral concepts which goven aethetics?
- How do we create visually pleasing aesthetics?
Starting with the first, the answer is yes, there are two concepts which govern everything aesthetically pleasing — consistency and contrast.
What is Consistency?
Consistency is when all of the elements or attributes of person, object or action are in sync.
Notice how consistency extends to much more than visual aesthetics, it also extends to beauty within actions or intentions. As humans, we’re wired to hunt for symmetry, we see symmetry in nature, our partners and in more abstract concepts, such as architecture, cognition or skin-in-the-game style behaviour.
For the human mind, symmetry is simple and transparent to understand. With symmetry, what you see is all there is, and this transparency is attractive to the human mind.
And it’s attractive, because we’re riddled with cognitive biases and logical fallacies, which means we following the path of least resistance. This means we do what we find simplest and easiest, to get by. This is great for survival (after all, there’s nothing beneficial about expending energy for no reward) but, quite the curse given the busy, challenge-ridden society we exist within today.
But, this is what makes consistency so aesthetically pleasing to us. The path of least resistance is consistent, simple and easy to understand. When someone (or something) looks nice, is nice and smells nice, it’s symmetrical and attractive — will this person be a great parent? Who knows, but our brains will say yes, because the information is symmetrical.
Consistency is symmetrical and thus aesthetically pleasing.
What is Contrast?
Contrast on the other hand, is when all of the elements or attributes of a person, object or action conflict.
Now, whilst the word conflict makes it tricky to imagine how contrast could ever be aesthetically pleasing, we need to remember that we are strange irrational creatures living in a paradoxical world full of contradictions.
Most of the world’s contradictions, we accept (and sometimes delight over) despite the clear asymmetry. Take fast food as an example, it’s a paradox in itself. As humans, we have slow digestive systems, yet we crave fast food. We value our health, yet we spend money to destroy it.
Our world is a strange one and contrast is a concept which at first sounds odd, but despite its quirks, is clearly aesthetic to our minds.
When it comes to nature, there are countless examples of aesthetic contrast. Red roses are a simple example, the soft red petals and green, thorny stems create a stark, heavy contrast in terms of both colour and meaning. On people, almost all tattoo’s are a natural contrast to the smooth, homogenous flow of human skin. Small potted plants in minimal workspaces breaks the endless white space — contrast is everywhere, yet in the right circumstances it feels good.
Contrast (much more so than consistency) is aesthetically pleasing for ambiguous and subjective reasons. It’s a complex beast and is often the most subjective aspect of aesthetics. The fashion world, it’s full of contrast and contradictions, so much so that it divides the masses, yet we’re still in awe when we find pieces that resonate with us.
When we look at actions, contrast becomes an even trickier subject as certain contrasting actions are incredibly attractive to some, and horiffically painful to others. If you’ve been attracted to someone with a unique look or ‘bad-ass’ personality, you might find the answer in contrast.
Contrast, unlike consistency, breaks the mould and is asymmetrical. This makes it subjective, but capitvating and aesthetically pleasing all the same.
Using these Principles to Create Aesthetics
For simplicity, here’s three models which (typically) create aesthetic combinations, covering the majority of the consistency/contrast principles. Now, like anything subjective, there are situations outside of these examples which will work, as well as plenty of times where using these examples will fail miserably.
Training your eyes and creating an understanding of aesthetics takes time, and this is a simple guide to stimulate your thinking, not to turn you into a master of aesthetics.
Believe me, if it was possible to simplify all of these ideas and abstractions into an article which turned everyone into the next Jony Ive, then I’d be a much richer man with many more fancy cars. What I can tell you, is that it’s this understanding of aesthetics that have enabled me to work with and create products for billion-dollar startups and Fortune 500 companies — take that as you will.
#1. Continuous Consistency
Keeping everything consistent, is a quick and simple win in terms of aesthetics. Minimalism is aesthetically pleasing and thrives on consistency, think matching typefaces, colours and photography. You don’t need to clone minimalism to create continuous consistency, but it’s great inspiration if you’re looking to go down this route
#2. Continuous Contrast
This is a much more challenging strategy in terms of aesthetics, but it’s one which will work all the same (but don’t expect everyone to like it). Continuous contrast creates large amounts of dissonance and asks the viewer/users to think. Unlike continuous consistency which tells you it’s aesthetically pleasing, continuous contrast tends to be more complex. Jamie Syke’s Service-O-Rama is a great example of this, it’s pretty nuts and while most may have something to say about this page, it is still aesthetic (at least to me).
#3. Consistency Through Contrast
This sounds odd, but makes perfect sense when you look at styles or systems like brutalism. Brutalism is somewhat odd, it’s bold, a little ugly and in some cases a tad infantile. However, the contrasting and conflicting elements all feel at home with each other, creating a new kind of symmetry. Anything which involves contrast is always subjective, but it becomes less so when it’s positioned as part of a system we’re able to rationalise and understand.