Aesthetic Experience

Design Aesthetics and Quilts


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.

Aesthetic Experience
Aesthetic Experience [Reference 1]
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?


  1. Hekkert, Paul, “Design aesthetics: principles of pleasure in design,” Psychology Science, Volume 48, 2006 (2), p. 157 – 172, [source].


  • I have a bicycle that is a bit like Symmetry. My bicycle has white-walled tyres, a cup holder and a red gingham patterned seat on an green frame. When I first took it out, a guy asked to take its picture. My husband has faster, lighter, sportier bikes – much more practical. Mine is heavy and hard to ride uphill, but cute.

    Does everyone have a sense of aesthetics? I have often wondered whether my dad lacks one!

    I am completely driven by the look of quilts! I will not be drawn to an ‘ugly’ (in my eyes) quilt, no matter how skilful the workmanship. What fascinates me is what separates one person’s ugly from another person’s beautiful in quilt design. Why do two people look at the same thing and respond so differently?

    • I definitely think that different things appeal to different people, and I think that there is a difference between genders that can be quite striking. My husband and I talk about “caveman” instincts and reasoning. One thing that my husband mentions fairly regularly is that he (and most of the men he knows) do not find babies attractive or interesting. Women are much more inclined to have positive responses to seeing any baby photo. Men, on the other hand, seem to only be interested in them when they are their genetic offspring. Also, it is apparent in our relationship that my husband is more drawn to “adventure” and I am more drawn to home and “cozy”. We obviously talk about these things a lot and I am also a fairly adventurous woman, but it is interesting to note our first perceptions on a topic.

  • I’ve never thought about this topic so seriously, but I found myself eager to read through this post. (I especially like the part about “shiny” objects – it makes so much sense!) I enjoy thinking about why we do what we do and like what we like. Thanks for putting this out here!

    • I literally laughed out loud when my husband told me why we like “shiny” things. We always joke that I can be deep in a conversation and then get distracted in an instant by a shiny object.

  • Fascnating Yvonne, my initial reaction before I read through your post was colour – interesting that form and symmetry come first cognitively. I react very positively to small aircraft. For me its excitement, and curiosity. I’ve been in Cessna and a microlight and loved every bit of it, the feel in your tummy when you turn and the land falls away from you – exhilarating! Have a look at this sewing machine concept – I find this gorgeous probably for the reasons you describe above.

    • I think that when we look at quilts, we might jump to color more quickly. Especially at a quilt show where you know what you are going to be presented with. But your mind will recognize the pattern before giving weight to the color, which is pretty interesting.

      I think you are right about that sewing machine – it has an aesthetic appeal that jumps out at you. It was interesting to read the article and the reason behind the design, too, because I can really see upgraded versions appealing to more experienced sewers – it looks like it has a lot of throat space, etc.

  • It must be interesting to be able to have a discussion with your husband about something you are both passionate about. Even though it applies to very different subjects. Your apprehension about taking on commission work for a piece that you don’t find appealing is totally founded. I find it fascinating that you can present two very similar quilts and receive such a split in the feedback as to which one is found to be aesthetically pleasing. Great post topic, Yvonne. And that is a beautiful plane. I like the streamlined look. And the bright yellow!

    • The bright – shiny! – yellow! 🙂

      It is really fascinating that the same quilt design can be presented in just different fabric selections, and my innate and immediate response to the pattern can be altered completed. It is really food for thought.

  • I definitely believe we are influenced by design and color when purchasing fabric and patterns. I recently saw a quilt that *really* spoke to me. There was a link in the post to the pattern; when I saw the pattern the very first thought I had was that I would never purchase the pattern based on the fabric choices of the pattern writer.

    When I read a new blog I like to look through the pages that show the quilts that person has made – it gives me a glimpse of what types of quilts they make and the fabrics they are drawn to. Most interesting to me were the end of year mosaics that so many bloggers posted. Those really allowed the reader to see the design aesthetic of individual bloggers.

    It is definitely more difficult to work on a quilt if I’m not drawn to the fabric, the design or both. I’ve been putting off making a quilt for my sister because what she wants isn’t what I normally do. I think we have to find something about a project that speaks to us as quilters — and artists — in order to care about the end product.

    • I have been thinking a lot about the fact that the quilts I make influence whether a reader will follow my blog, or someone will like my work, Beth. As I mentioned, a lot of the quilts I have made recently have been on commission, and so they have not necessarily been to my aesthetic liking. I don’t have any conclusions from my thinking, but it is in the back of my mind more and more often these days.

      Oh, and you have been putting of a quilt because it isn’t something you normally do or are drawn to, how interesting! I think it is a fascinating topic, because people sometimes have the opinion, “You’re a quilter, this shouldn’t be a problem for you,” when the reality is that I should only work on projects that speak to me.

  • Interesting topic, but I can’t think of any time where I didn’t buy something because of the aesthetic. Maybe I did and I was just not thinking of it in that manner.

    • I definitely understand and appreciate aesthetic, Shauna, but I am also a really big details person. I can quickly “transcend” my aesthetic compulsions and start evaluating an item’s usefulness. For example, there are many absolutely stunning art quilts, but I am just not drawn to them because I cannot for the life of me figure out why you would make a lot of them. I really love a cuddly, snuggly, and functional quilt.

  • Such an interesting post, Yvonne! There’s so much to think about there, especially with regard to Symmetry and how it seems the aesthetic appeal trumps function to a certain degree. Thanks for sharing.

    • For me, a comparative example from quilting would be art quilts. There is no question in my mind that they are beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, but they are also lacking in practicality and functionality. Are you really going to cuddle with an art quilt? How do you wash it? Some quilters will make a lot of art quilts and find immense joy in the art and craft, for me, I might branch out (some day), but I expect that I will be pretty content to make quilts that are less about the art and more about the cuddle factor.

  • Such an interesting topic. I find that I like all quilts (unless there is something offensive about it). I appreciate the work that went into it. I think I also look at the pattern, separate from the colors. My mom taught me to do this when I was a teenager. We would look through a quilt book and she would say things like, “Oh, can you imagine this quilt in _____ colors?” Now whether or not I love a quilt it must combine all three: the work, the pattern, and the colors.

    I also find that I love making useful and pretty things. I find so much satisfaction taking a pile of fabric and making something someone can use and cuddle up in. It is easier for me to make something with fabrics I enjoy, but more important for me that I like the process. So if I were to make a quilt for someone else, I think I could use almost any fabric as long as I enjoyed the pattern. What can I say? I like simple quilts. Now if someone asked me to do an appliqué quilt, or a Dear Jane quilt, I would have a problem.

    • Your mom was a very smart lady to help you learn to visualize the quilt in different colors. That is a great way to look at patterns, and something that I definitely try to do.

      I don’t know why Applique is such a bugger for me. As you know, I have at least one project that is going to require the technique and I am really dragging my feet on working on it. These kind of things are really interesting to me, because I know so many people who love the technique.

  • This is so fascinating. I read the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell this summer which prompted me to think about some of the same things. Not sure if you’ve read the book, but I highly recommend it. Its about the instant impressions and decisions we make (in the blink of an eye). He shared one story about the Aeron Chair that definitely fits with this theme. The chair was designed to be the most ergonomic and comfortable ever but it did incredibly poorly in its initial marketing because it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing.

    You can read more about it here:

    Food for thought!

  • Not that I’ve ever done any commission quilts, but one thing that makes me wary of ever doing it is having to work with things I’m not interested in — whether it be the fabrics or design. I always find it hard to get motivated to do the things I’m not interested in or have no interest in (see: my piled up laundry!).

    With design/colour preferences, at least in the quilting community, there is also the “sheep mentality” and “want what you can’t have” to play a part as well where you don’t necessarily like what you’re using but everyone is using/doing it or having what someone else doesn’t makes you seem “special”.

    Example: Take how super crazy people are over Cotton and Steel. I’m sure a lot of people have bought their fabrics not because they especially like it, but because it would draw attention to their own work. Also, Tula Pink’s fabrics and how people pretty much try to beg, borrow and steal any Tula they can find. Choosing to use/do what is popular is almost like having a built in fan base. Tagging a picture with things that are trending would get you far more response than using and tagging something less well known and with quilts, I think we all want to show them off to as many people as we can and an easy way to do that is to use popular items to get that attention.

    • Really interesting points, Jo! Deciding to take on commissioned quilt work has been mostly a blessing (financially it has benefits, haha!), but it does make me pause and think pretty often. I would definitely not be making these quilts were they not commissioned, but I do try to find some angle that I love about the quilt. For example, Tessellated Leaves isn’t exactly my kind of quilt, but I was able to design in the beautiful color gradient across the quilt and that kept me really excited to work on the quilt and see the colors blend together.

  • Wonderful thought provoking post. I try really hard to separate different aspects of design, looking at the quilt design and color separately, but I will admit that when looking through a page of quilt pictures my eyes naturally go to the ones in my color preferences. I have found that my most successful quilt patterns have been bright multi-colored with pinks and oranges, it makes me want to remake some lesser sellers in those colors to test whether new colors on the cover quilt will alter sales.

    • Oh, what an interesting idea to purposefully re-work some of your patterns and re-release them with updated colorways on display. I really do think that we are all going to be inclined to have biases that pull us one way or another, but ultimately, I am so happy with quilts and quilting that it does feel like I am being too nit-picky on occasion.

  • When I go to the International Quilt Festival here in Houston, there are so many quilts and things in vendor’s booths on display, within 1-, 5-, 10-, 100-feet, etc. that you have to limit what you pay attention to (unless you spend every day of the festival there!). This past November, I really found myself drawn to color and/or design. Sometimes it was a bold color that drew me across the vast space, and sometimes it was a muted one that I needed to check out close up. Sometimes it was an intriguing design or design element that caught my eye. Rarely did a print catch my eye, other than maybe plaid which tends to stand out. However, colors or designs that clashed or competed within the same project were noticeable, but not necessarily in a good way. And there was that one vendor’s booth that was ALL GRAY. Seriously scary and off-putting for me! I also notice that I tend to ignore perfection – the quilts that looked like photographs – and be drawn to asymmetry or wonkiness. I ENJOY the imperfection in a handmade item, and my aesthetic is that it SHOULD be there or otherwise, we are mimicking machines instead of being ourselves. Not that machines are perfect; they are made by humans, too. 😉

    Love this discussion! Really thought-provoking comments from your readers.

    • I know what you mean by being drawn in by something that is a bit asymmetric or imperfect. It is nice to know that something can be beautifully made but not perfect. I can understand that something like the International Quilt Festival would be pretty overwhelming and that you would have to start limiting what draws you in. I bet the all gray booth either really spoke to people or kept them away, and I wonder if they attracted the people that they meant to with that.

  • Very thoughtful and thought provoking post, Yvonne. Thank you. Perhaps it explains the resurgence of crystals on quilts??? 🙂 I am fascinated by the differences of color attractiveness based on culture and geographical area where one grows up. For example as a native Seattle-ite, I would find the gray booth welcoming and restful.

    • It might explain the resurgence of metallic fleck in fabrics, too. Your point about cultural and geographical influence on design aesthetic is a really good point, and one that I make repeatedly to my husband. He grew up in the desert southwest and I grew up in the south east, so now that we are living in the south west together, it has taken a bit of adjustment for me to come to terms with typical and beautiful home designs out here as opposed to what I was used to as a child.

  • It’s an interesting topic. I kind of find it hard to accept that colour isn’t more of an initial decider, I’m sure I like the look of that plane because it’s such a lovely, sunny yellow colour! And it’s particularly interesting to me at the moment because my Mother in law has requested a quilt for her bedroom, and it needs to go with a feature wall papered in possibly the ugliest wallpaper I’ve ever seen. I’m struggling a bit with it!

    • Oh, color is definitely a part of it, Sally. What I found interesting is that it isn’t the FIRST thing your brain recognizes. It is definitely something that I find I identify with the most when evaluating quilts. Especially when it is a novel color combination. I can understand that you would struggle to come up with an idea based around a wallpaper you find ugly! You might need to post a photo so we can help you brainstorm positive and productive ways to incorporate its features or colors in a way that will coordinate but be beautiful. 🙂

  • I find this whole topic fascinating! Sometimes people don’t even realize why they like, or don’t like something because that initial response is so fast and solid that they don’t question it. I immediately didn’t like Symmetry because it is yellow. Yellow has always been my least favorite color, which is even more reinforced every time my MIL raves about the color and tries to push it on others (including myself and my kids). Slowly I’ve realized this and tried to distance her opinion and my emotional response to it from the actual color and it’s possible beauty. That being said (and realized) I can appreciate Symmetry for it’s design, despite the color 😉

    • Oh, man, I hear you about having an aversion to color. I have a friend who dislikes purple a LOT because of the same reason (except the pusher is her mother). I am not a fan of pink – I think that is mostly because as a girl, girl toys are pink and suck. I always wanted the legos or fun toys that my brother got and I got frilly pink crap (and Barbie dolls who immediately had their clothes removed and hair chopped off). OK, I might have a few more issues than just the pink thing. It just makes me feel gender limited. In the past couple of years I have been trying to embrace pink as a color and use it and enjoy it (like in the Racetrack Quilt!), and it is going OK, although it will probably never be a color that draws me into something initially.

  • I’m late to this party but glad I found it. I’ll look forward to reading some of your other discussions.

    The comments here are as interesting as the post, in my opinion, so thank you for spurring the conversation. As to purchases of fabric, I tend to purchase by color and value because of how I work. I don’t care at all about who the fabric designer is, and I don’t much go for quirky/cutesy prints. So not all of my buys are because I like the color; some are because it will be useful to me.

    Maybe that is my analytical nature. I’m with your husband in thinking most babies aren’t very interesting. I grew up rolling toy cars in the dirt and playing with Lincoln logs and Legos, when I wasn’t reading. My background is in financial management, so very mathy and analytical. Only now am I deliberately developing my design chops, rather than depending on some intuitive sense. (And I wasn’t bad at the intuitive stuff, but I think I’m better now.)

    As the airplane, it is lovely. But I’m more impressed with the C17 (Air Force cargo plane) I was able to visit recently. That things a MONSTER! The little Symmetry likely can fit inside it. And likely needs a longer runway. 🙂

    Thanks again.

I really appreciate the time and thought you take to comment, and I look forward to conversing with you. :)