My husband has been researching design aesthetics recently. He is focused on evaluating a large object and refining it to have pleasing aesthetics, which is a design challenge that he has not been faced with previously. As an engineer, he has found himself presented with long lists of requirements that an item needs to meet, and on this project, he is imposing the additional requirement of trying to include design aesthetics into his creative process. Because of this, he and I have been having a lot of philosophical discussions lately about the topic, and I thought it was worth opening it up as a larger topic to the quilting community.
Let’s face it, quilts have great function, but most of the time we are drawn to a pattern, fabric, or quilt quickly. What mechanisms are at work behind our judgement, and how quickly do we form these opinions?
Loosely stated, it appears that research indicates that when presented with a new object, humans form an aesthetic appeal judgement in under 1 second. The first things that our brains recognize are an item’s basic form, followed by symmetry, glossiness, and then we finally recognize color. After this initial quick judgement is made, other mental processes kick in. Is there an emotional response? Do you have a family heirloom quilt that uses that same pattern which biases you to like the pattern? Do you really dislike the color used in the quilt? Is the subject matter of the quilt something that emotionally appeals to you?
It is interesting to note that it is possible to spend a long time (hours, days, weeks…) evaluating the usefulness, emotional responses, and other factual information about the object, but in the end your initial aesthetic response (that occurred in the first second you were presented with the object) can still be weighted heavier in your final feelings about an object than the “cold hard facts” or discussions you might have had about the object.
So what kind of things are innately appealing? It turns out that aesthetic appeal is a very hardwired and instinctual response. If you were living 2,000 years ago and searching for water, as you stood on top of the local high ground scanning the area around you, you would be excited to see light glinting or reflecting off of water. Hence, shiny things are very nice and appealing (hello C+S sparkly goodness!). When evaluating the health of a potential mate, facial symmetry is a key indicator of health, so symmetry or nicely played up asymmetry that shows of a best feature is also very attractive.
OK, so I’m going to go through an example using an object you are probably not familiar with: an airplane named Symmetry.
Symmetry is one of the most beautifully handmade and sculpted experimental aircraft ever built. When my friend, Cory Bird, takes Symmetry out of his hangar, it always draws a crowd. Symmetry has won awards, been featured in countless magazine articles, and been the highlight of the EAA’s AirVenture air show held in Oshkosh, WI. It took Cory 15 years to complete Symmetry, and mid way through the construction he started over on the design to allow the airplane to also accommodate his wife, Patti (originally it was designed as a singe person aircraft).
Symmetry is hard to fly. It has poor landing performance for the very reasons that make it so aesthetically pleasing: it is aerodynamically “clean” and smooth, therefore it lands very fast and it is hard to slow down on landing. While Cory and Patti fit into the airplane, they are very small people and it is uncomfortable for them to be in the airplane for long periods of time (like when they had to fly it to Oshkosh, WI, and home).
I don’t know how you react to small aircraft, so you might have an emotional bias that tells you that airplanes are unsafe and to be avoided at all costs. I can tell you, though, that even with many technically negative attributes, people who like airplanes *love* symmetry. Even though they could never fit into the airplane to fly it. Even though it is a small airplane but has to be flown into large airports with long runways. The design aesthetic of this particular object is enough to sway most people into liking it.
As I think about my responses to quilts and quilts that I really like, I realize that some of what I like most is clearly design aesthetic. I can acknowledge that some of what does, or does not, appeal to me is also emotional. The quilts that I have made that please me the most aesthetically are much different than quilts I have made on commission for people. This is an interesting cross-roads and it occasionally makes it hard for me to decide if I should accept a particular commission or not. If a project doesn’t aesthetically “speak” to me, it is harder for me to work on, and I worry that I will not do as good a job if I make it.
I daresay we have all decided whether or not to purchase a fabric based on design aesthetic. I am wondering if you have noticed that you are influenced by aesthetic in your own quilt making or design process? Has it ever dictated whether or not your purchased a pattern?
- Hekkert, Paul, “Design aesthetics: principles of pleasure in design,” Psychology Science, Volume 48, 2006 (2), p. 157 – 172, [source].