What is Beauty?

Beauty and aesthetics, as we all know, are an ongoing concern in the world of design and art. But beauty is subjective and hard to define. What you may find beautiful, could be ordinary or even ugly to others. It's deeply linked with emotions and experience.

Isn't it what makes it all more special? Beauty is not a mere surface but a central part of what it means to be human.

Designers Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh have recently started a project about the contemporary idea of beauty, how we process it, and how it can help us. [1]

The thesis of the project is the idea that throughout human history and culture, beauty had a role in the things that we made, explains Sagmeister. “It literally started in the Stone Age and went all the way to the beginning of the 20th Century. And then it kind of stopped." Sagmeister refers to the advent of functionalism, when rational thought and purpose became the driving forces behind design.

The Beauty Project, explores how beauty might be a sociological construct too

I invite you to check the Beauty Project on Stefan Segmaister's Instagram where he's crowdsourcing images of beauty and inviting discussion.

 Compilation of images in @stefansagmeister. The exercise is to send the most beautiful, human made thing you can think of.

Compilation of images in @stefansagmeister. The exercise is to send the most beautiful, human made thing you can think of.

There are things that all humans find beautiful. That is very much part of it. Then there is just culture.
— Jessica Walsh (2018)

“As a rule of thumb, there are 25-50% of things where there is an agreement that it is beautiful. Then with the rest, it is to do with a familiarity,” Sagmeister suggests." And taste comes in there – of course, coupled with education. Then there is context, when you find something beautiful in a certain context that is very often connected with how secure we feel ourselves. If we feel very secure we find more usual things beautiful. If we are not secure, we want to really know what we find beautiful. We see this from clients all the time.”

He also speaks about how the idea of beauty is not restricted to something pretty, but related to intention:

“The antithesis of beauty is not ugliness, it is carelessness,” he opines. “It is true of everywhere in the world, the stuff that is ugly is normally never the stuff that someone wanted to make ugly, it is always the stuff that someone didn’t give a shit about. And so we actually enjoy particularly ugly things. They can be fantastic. I think when we really talk about beauty, we talk about formal intent. So we can even include the ugly. It is never about minimalism or baroque, it is always about the ultimate decision – was it done with love and care or did nobody give a shit? The ‘nobody gave a shit’ world is huge…”

 Quote by Stefan Sagmeister (2018)

Quote by Stefan Sagmeister (2018)

This reminded me of Massimo Vignelli's concept of Intellectual Ellegance expressed in his Canon, where he communicates his principles to good design and the guidelines of his well known fight against the ugliness: [2]

For me, intellectual elegance is the sublime
level of intelligence which has produced all the
masterpieces in the history of mankind.

It is the elegance we find in Greek statues, in
Renaissance paintings, in the sublime writings of
Goethe, and many great creative minds.

It is the elegance of Architecture of any period, the Music of all times, the clarity of Science through the ages. It is the thread that guides us to the best solution of whatever we do.

It is the definitive goal of our minds - the one beyond compromises.
— Massimo Vignelli. (2010) The Vignelli Canon.

It's when you see somethinga concept, a story, an executed piecewhere everything seems to fit in its proper place. I find beauty in that, in marveling at the capacities of the human brain, and the fact that people, with the same tools and sometimes even the same briefings, produce completely different and wonderful results.

It is the beauty of what we as humans can conceive, as intelligent beings. That can be another kind of beauty by itself.

 Earthrise (1968) William Anders, NASA. The first full-color view of our planet. Perhaps humanity’s first true grasp of the beauty and fragility of our world

Earthrise (1968) William Anders, NASA. The first full-color view of our planet. Perhaps humanity’s first true grasp of the beauty and fragility of our world

There are other kinds of beauty that are harder to define. It's beauty that simple sweeps you off your feet. There's no need to understand or explain, as much as there is the need to contemplate, and it can become fuel for your soul, and your work.

In fact, the origin of the word "beautiful," kalon, does not constitute an etymology among others, but is the very origin of language. The word kalon is the name of naming. Beautiful, kalon, is a calling. [3]

I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.
— Claude Monet
 Agapanthus - Claude Monet (1914–1926

Agapanthus - Claude Monet (1914–1926

In a general sense, I really love the way John O'Donohue, an Irish poet and philosopher, defined beauty: [4]

Beauty isn’t all about just nice, loveliness like. Beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming. So I think beauty in that sense is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.
— John O'Donohue. (2017) On Being.

Beauty is a broad and complex concept, absolutely necessary to human beings, inherent to the capacity to observe, a passion for knowledge, a sense of balance and the love for daily work and life.

I do believe you can find beauty everywhere. In simplicity and sophistication; in nature and man made creations; in methodology and order but also in chaos and accidents. We just have to learn to see better.

 

References

(1) Pritchard, O. (2018) Beauty through the eyes of Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh. It's Nice That. Retrieved July 20, 2018 from: 

https://www.itsnicethat.com/features/stefan-sagmeister-jessica-walsh-graphic-design-040618

(2) Vignelli, M. (2015) The Vignelli Canon. Retrieved January 15, 2018 from: http://vignelli.com/canon.pdf

(3) Chétien, J. (2004) The Call and the Response. New York: Fordham University Press.

(4) O'Donohue, J., Tippet, K. (2017) The Inner Landscape of Beauty. On Being. Retrieved July 30, 2018 from: 
https://onbeing.org/programs/john-odonohue-the-inner-landscape-of-beauty/