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The Essence of Beauty in Industrial Design

Author: Stephen Samuel PE

Author: Stephen Samuel PE

For the last 30 years, my passion has been innovating new products and new ways of automating the design processes through which those products get to the marketplace.

Industrial design is important

One of the most important roles of an industrial designer working in the product design arena is to define the product’s form so it will attract and delight the end user. The form can capture the eye of a prospective customer, beacon them over to the shelf, or to click on the link and input their credit card info.

Product form can give a sense of pride as the user is seen by friends, family members or even total strangers. Form gives the user something that somehow appeals to an underlying sense of beauty and value. Although the function of a product is arguably more important than the form, and the function is somewhat inseparable from the form it is instructive to consider the form as its own separate entity.

Great Industrial design is beauty and art. Unfortunately for the industrial designer trying to give a product a form that will help to sell it, art and beauty vary greatly from culture to culture, from age to age and from male to female. When defining a product that is supposed to sell worldwide, it is difficult to know what will be appealing to such a varied user community. That said, industrial designers who are trying to suit the tastes of a huge and varied audience benefit by considering what is universal.

The Beauty of Nature

When we look at the natural world, we are viewing the art and design of the best designer that ever lived. Arguably there is nothing that can be created by humans that will ever come close to the beauty of the natural world, but industrial design can be greatly enhanced by borrowing shapes, colors and textures from the natural world.

The beauty of a rose, the beauty of a young horse and the beauty of a majestic bird of prey can aid in the creation of product form. When certain sports car designers desire to define a fabulous look for their automobiles, they may attempt to emulate musculature, teeth and other physical attributes in their designs. The designers even attempt to connect their products to the natural world with the names they choose, such as Mustang, Thunderbird, Cobra, Viper, and even Rabbit.

Some of the most beautiful and appealing designs appear as if they have grown out of the landscape. In architecture this can be achieved by deviating from the perfectly straight and vertical surfaces that commonly appear in man-made items and utilize the soft sloping curves that appear in the natural world such as, waterfalls, trees, and dunes. It can also be expressed through asymmetry.

The same principle is applied to product design.

When products are created that make use of natural lead-ins and thickened basses, they look stable and rooted to the ground and borrow visual cues from natural shapes like tree trunks and flower stems. The user can feel comforted in the same why a hike through a forest may bring a feeling of calm and sense of beauty.

The raw material of a design can harken to nature. The most overt way to do this is to use natural materials in their natural state such as wood and rattan for furniture and other products.

Perhaps the most compelling natural shape known to humankind is the shape of a beautiful woman. Women love to look at women and men love to look at women. The female form means warmth, love, kindness, and sex.

The shape of women is used in advertising to attract people to products but more importantly the shape of women influences the form of the products themselves.

Some industrial designers will even reference pictures of beautiful women as they begin sketching lines of a radio or a computer. Sometimes this philosophy may lead to visual cues that are too overt, but in many cases a more subtly influenced design can produce a fabulous design.

Beauty from Incredibility

In some cases, the beauty of a form is derived from an incredible and sometimes supernatural or futuristic nature. When a consumer sees something that looks impossible, it is attractive. For example, lighting fixtures or displays that seem to glow without an apparent bulb, or one-legged tables that seem to stand on their own appeal to a sense of magic and wonder in us.

How do they do that?  

We simply are attracted to things that are of a high-tech nature or advanced or astonishing in some way. However, anything that derives its beauty from wonder runs the risk of becoming commonplace when the novelty wears off.

Some products are amazing because of how simply miraculous they are. When you see a newborn for the first time and you look at the little feet with the perfectly formed little toes, it’s incredible how they have all the same blood vessels, bones, and nerves that adults have, but in an incredibly small and perfect package.  The look of a pregnant woman can be amazingly beautiful not just because of the curves and shapes, but largely because of the amazing miracle that’s going on inside her.

These principles also apply to good product design. 

When certain Apple laptops are manufactured, they are machined out of an aluminum block. This allows them to be super thin and achieve a look that’s unlike any other laptop on the market. The idea of machining a computer chassis out of a solid Aluminum block is insane, unless you have the inventiveness and initial capital to set up a dedicated and automated factory to do it. 

When you’re Apple, anything is possible, and the designs are amazing. Another example of this is the iPod. When everyone else in the industry was making the same old injection molded housing, Apple designers decided to use an aluminum extrusion, giving the iPod it’s unique, polished look.  The incredible, compact display makes the user think,

“How did they make a display screen that small? – It’s a miracle.”

Detail makes a product look amazing. If you compare the paint job on brand new BMW – any model, to that of any car that is half the price, you will see a marked difference. The paint on a BMW is smooth as glass and stays that way even when you leave it out in the hot sun for years. How do they do it? What do they use? It’s astonishing.

The color of flowers is arguably more vibrant than anything else in nature.  As you Walk through a beautiful forest you can be overwhelmed and dazzled by all of it.  When you walk up to an amazingly colorful plant that is growing naturally, it’s equally astonishing.  A rainbow has the same effect, and the use of these colors in industrial design is not surprisingly heavily influenced by nature. 

 

Beauty from Extraordinary Human Effort

To some, evidence of extraordinary human efforts is itself beautiful.  It’s very similar to the beauty of incredibility, but there’s more emphasis on raw human energy. For example, the Great Wall of China. It’s not really a mystery how it was built, but it’s considered beautiful because of its length and the amazing amount of human effort that went into building it.

It’s one of the only man-made objects in the world that one can see with the naked eye from space. Castles are considered beautiful both because of the massive stonework and because of the sheer difficulty in producing anything like them, even in modern times. The mansions of Newport, Rhode Island are considered beautiful for similar reasons.

When every square millimeter of a huge room is covered with some ornate art that some craftsperson worked half their life on, many people find it to be extremely attractive.

Some of the beauty comes from the fact that the marble is imported from Italy, the rugs are imported from Persia, or the glass of the chandelier is made from 5200 individually hand-blown crystals.  The curtains may be made from a silk that only grows in one small province of China by special silkworms that only produce 8 grams of the stuff each year- you get the idea.

 

Industrial designers can use this technique by covering their products with a thousand of something. This particular something should be special; it can’t be mass manufactured or attached by a machine.  It simply has to be done by hand.

When you see intricate carvings it’s easy to imagine that we are seeing the entire life’s work of one person. It may make us feel special that we can walk buy it and enjoy it knowing that a person somewhere dedicated years of their life just to produce this one piece of art. It may make us want to possess it or at least to possess the means to possess it. It’s someone’s entire life’s work.

Beauty comes from Exclusivity

When you see items that, if you possessed them, would instantly place you in a special category, they are attractive.  Arguably a lot of the “beauty” of these items comes from their exclusivity. The hope diamond has only been owned by a handful of people.

If suddenly there was a discovery that made it possible to take some sugar and some skim milk and microwave it for 30 seconds to get an object that was identical in every way shape and form to the hope diamond, would the copies be thought of as beautiful, or would you see tons of them in the land fill?

Have you ever noticed, the bigger the rock, the more people say it’s beautiful? It’s common practice to cover things in gold leaf. Paint won’t due. As soon as you put gold on anything you increase its monetary value, and with that you decrease the number of people who can possess it.

Designers can easily take advantage of the exclusivity principle to make their products more appealing. They may incorporate expensive and hard to obtain materials or use techniques that are exclusive or proprietary. For this principle to work well, there must be a reason why the product is not available to the masses.  

The product might be produced in a limited quantity even though it may not have to be.  The product might bear the name of a celebrity.

Beauty comes from Relief of Physical Needs

Some of the most powerful human desires such as hunger, sex, and safety attract us to that which promises to deliver these things to us. In the art world we find a myriad of still-life paintings involving, not surprisingly, food and nudes. In this day and age, with a fast-food restaurant on every corner, it is difficult for many to imagine what it’s like to not have access to good food.

Although some would argue that these days good food is still scarce, the perception is you can get good food anytime you want.  The painting shown below is typical of many works done in a time and place when fruit was not readily available all year round.

Industrial designers can use this principle to their great advantage. The choice of color and shape can be borrowed from food. The texture of a peach skin can be extremely compelling when used to adorn a product.

Of course, beautiful women are the subject of art and design for many reasons. As mentioned previously, there is an historic, innate attraction to the beauty of the feminine form that influences industrial design and art. Beautiful nudes can be seen as the promise of relief from sexual desire.

It’s interesting to note that different cultures in different times have varying standards for the beauty of nude women. As the paintings above show in the 1700s large women with a little extra were considered attractive.  Perhaps in a land and time of scarcity, extra is inherently more attractive. In modern times of plenty, perhaps thin is more appealing.

The desire to be safe and protected can be represented and projected by images and shapes associated to strength.  For that reason, products that project a feeling of strength can be very appealing. Products that appear built to last and are associated with “tuff” can do very well.

In a recent automobile TV commercial, a football player is undressed out of his football uniform so the audience can view his perfectly athletic physique. Then he is dressed in a fine business suit.  In the very next scene a car is shown as if to imply that underneath the elegant design of the car there is a power house of an engine – a real performer. The typical color of guns and knives is black and grey and dark brown. The images that inspire products that are supposed to project strength are extremely masculine and in some cases, phallic.

Rambo and the Cadillac CTS

The feeling of safety can also be portrayed with images that are serene. What can be more serene than being in a garden of flowers?  Industrial designers commonly borrow shapes, colors and textures from natural visions of serenity.

Size Matters

The size of a product, whether it is small or large in comparison to other things can work to make a product appealing. In each case the size of a product has to indicate that it’s special and therefore has increased value and appeal.  When products are miniaturized consumers get the feeling that special care was taken to make the parts smaller than normal. The idea is that the product is now more useful, required more engineering, or is more exclusive. 

In essence, it’s more miraculous. You can just hear consumers question, “How did they get all those components into that little package?”  In psychology there is a theory called Steven’s power law. 

It is said to be the mathematical relationship between the magnitude of a physical stimulus and its effect on your perception and reaction.  Some psychologists use it to prove that when an object is bigger there is a tendency to place more value on it. Of course, here in the US there are a lot of restaurants that attract us with a super-sized meal. 

We are attracted to huge automobiles, boats, homes etc. compared to the rest of the industrialized world. There are places in the US where men are expected to drive trucks – large trucks, whether or not they have a real need for having one. Some studies have shown when vacuum cleaners are loud consumers assume that they are more powerful.

A good industrial designer might easily look at the experience of using a vacuum cleaner, conclude that it’s too loud, take steps to quiet it down and then lose sales.  There are even products that are purposely weighted down to add a sense of value. The conclusion is this- sometimes with certain products, in order to make things more appealing, it’s good to make a product bigger than its competitors. 

Other times a product has more appeal when it’s miniaturized, but in general, a product should be as large as the actual function would mandate. For example, the size of a hair dryer should be dictated by the handle to hold it, the diameter of the blower, and the space to house the motor, PCB, fan, and switch. The size of a product is a judgment call.

Beauty comes from Math and Balance

When things are mathematically balanced and clever, they can be very appealing. Many ancient roman arches, buildings, handheld devices, and a myriad of other devices and products make use of mathematical relationships. The golden rectangle/ratio is a form where the height and width of a rectangle have a 1.61803399 relationship.

It has been theorized that various mathematical shapes compel your eye to move through the shape in a particular pattern that is soothing. 

The golden rectangle or ratio was used to develop the proportions of the United Nations building as well as the Parthenon.  Other mathematical relationships are appealing such as the math behind the domes built by Buck Minster Fuller. The calculations that were made in order for the Brooklyn Bridge to stand are inherent in the shape and feel.  The Brooklyn Bridge is considered one of the most beautiful manmade structures ever built.

Art Deco is defined by a mathematical / geometric look and is considered beautiful by many. The Chrysler building in NY City is arguably one of the most beautiful buildings ever built. It graces the NY skyline like the cherry on top of a great big milk shake on a hot summer day. A variety of consumer products have been designed using the same art deco design language.

The Ugly and Grotesque

As industrial designers and artists seek to define and understand the origins of beauty it is instructive to acknowledge the essence of ugly and grotesque. By studying these opposites, we can come to a deeper understanding of how to create beauty. 

Some of the things that top the list of ugly and grotesque are death, sickness, feces, weakness, and dishonesty. In addition, evil can be very unattractive although some are very attracted to it.

Some of the images that go along with ugly, and grotesque are blemished, discolored, and uneven. Things that look wet and frayed look ugly. Things that look decayed and partially done or undone are ugly. The common theme of ugly is damage, dysfunction, and imperfection.

Anything that looks dead is a source of repulsion and even fear.  On a subconscious basis many of us fear death and want to avoid its inevitable pull. Much of what we do is in an effort to somehow cheat death. Death ultimately takes our control away.

Sometimes death and fearful images are used to create an appealing look. It begs the question why “bad ass” is appealing and who it appeals to.

Perhaps the reason these images are appealing is based on a counterculture ethic. Deathly and grotesque images can symbolize freedom and hedonism. It may symbolize sexual freedom and freedom from the discipline imposed on us by traditional elements of society.

When deathly images are used to create “beauty”, in a certain sense death, the ultimate enemy, is toyed with and therefore controlled. If one can make fun of death, or at least take death lightly, even use death to adorn one’s body, then on some level death is beaten. Who wouldn’t want to be “badder” than the grim reaper?

Dishonesty is Ugly

Dishonesty is ugly. When you see simulations of things that aren’t done well and unnecessary geometry on things that are meant to function, there is an inherent dishonesty that is detected subconsciously if not consciously.

No one likes to be lied to.

No one likes to be made a fool of.

When you see scoops on little underpowered cars, or after-market spoilers on cars that would have a tuff time pushing 90 or hub caps with simulation spooks on them, it looks cheap and weak.

A lie can look good if it’s a good lie. There are a lot of plastic parts that are coated in a thin metal or simulated wood grain. These parts save weight and cost, yet you would never know that they weren’t all steel.

The Common Thread to all Beauty

Somewhere in all the many paths to beauty and the opposite paths to ugly there is a common thread. Perhaps in nature, incredibility, extraordinary human effort, the relief of human needs, size and balance, there is the inherent representation of the things that are special in life.

The fact is most of us desire to be special in some way. Subconsciously there is part of us that knows that if we are just another human, we will have to die one day like everyone else. Perhaps for those deep seeded reasons we are attracted to that which promises us relief of human wants and desires and even our human mandated death. 

Perhaps the products that are based on mathematical shapes are attractive to us because math and geometry are universal and will never die. Maybe the things that repulse us signify death, and we revile them because most of us don’t want to be close to death. We don’t want to have anything to do with it. Or maybe the things that are beautiful to us are beautiful just because they are. As Freud is reported to have said,

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

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