Ask the nearest designer for an example of good design, and they’ll mostly likely name drop some big brand logos, a couple of clean-cut typefaces, and maybe a buzzy ad campaign or two. Ask them how beautiful those designs are, and—after they scratch their head and make sure they heard the question correctly—they’ll probably inform you that you’re missing the point. Good design isn’t about looking pretty, it’s about solving a problem, they’ll say. After all, that’s what their design instructor taught them, and what their design instructor’s instructor taught them.
But when exactly did the notion that physical beauty precludes intellectual depth, or conceptual rigor, or the ability to solve a problem ingrain itself in our collective design consciousness? When did we all decide that style and substance are essentially oil and water?
That’s the wrong Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh seek to right in their new book, Beauty. In it they argue that beautiful designs function better, and do far more than just look appealing; rather, it’s the attention to form itself that increases their functionality. In a mix of essays, comparative analyses, user polls, and wisdom pulled from some of the greatest philosophical, sociological, and architectural minds throughout history, Sagmeister and Walsh reestablish the definition of the word beauty and separate it from the negative connotations that have been misapplied to beautiful things; they trace not just the origins of beauty, but the evolution of its place in our world, from pre-civilization to today.
While the book itself is a case study in beautiful design, it’s also departure from the norm: a design book from a noteworthy design studio that isn’t about their design work. It isn’t even that other kind of design book we’ve grown accustomed to, the one with lists of life lessons that ultimately point back to examples from the designer’s own portfolio of work.
In Beauty, the authors state a thesis and then set about proving it. Though this method may sound like a highly academic approach, and there’s certainly lots of research that went into it, the real expertise here comes from years of firsthand experience in the relationship between form and function—and fun. As with any S&W release, the studio’s characteristic sense of play and irreverence makes for lively writing and unexpected narrative turns.
“We believe this rejection of beauty is utterly stupid.”
The first of which is to hold the cult of Modernism accountable for the devaluation of beauty, and the suspicion that beautiful work might not be taken seriously, or derided as merely decorative or commercial. To avoid this risk, the grid was firmly laid out in design schools as the safe, clean, rational solution, to the point that it became non-expressive to the exclusion of physical beauty. Although it can be argued that this super stripped-down work is also beautiful (one must account for the eye of the beholder), more often than not, S&W argue that it’s led to a kind of “psychotic sameness” and enforced limitations and principles that “fail to communicate anything distinctly individual—personality, uniqueness, emotion—and often have a crushing and negative effect on contemporary imagination.”
Ultimately, they “believe this rejection of beauty is utterly stupid,” and go on to show how beautiful things function better. For example, if you’re a designer making the case to a client, a beautiful packaging design moves more units. If you’re making the case to a city planner, a beautiful space (be it housing or the neglected area under a highway overpass) makes people happier, more productive, and less prone to crime.
To bear this out, they cite the results of their own Instagram polls, but this mushier data works to thread together the real-deal research and writings of scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians, including Benoit Mandelbrot, John D. Balling and John H. Falk, Dr. Helmut Leder of the Empirical Visual Aesthetics Lab in Vienna, Hegel, Nietzsche, and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel (whose concept of “the interesting” validates so-called “ugly design” as beautiful), architect Adolf Loos, and of course Louis Sullivan (Mr. “Form follows function”).
We take a trip back to the beginning of human civilization to Plato’s Socratic dialogues (Beauty is truth/truth is beauty) and onto the Renaissance. Moving swiftly through history, S&W also call into question some ties between Bauhaus, International Style, and Nazism; Fritz Ertl, who designed the barracks at Auschwitz, and MoMA’s Philip Johnson, who helped coin the term International Style, was a Nazi sympathizer.
The book defines beauty mathematically, too: M = O/C, where beauty (M) is the ratio of Organization to Complexity. In other words, beauty is “the sweet spot between order and chaos.” Whereas Modernists will insist that design is a rejection of chaos, beauty lies in the middle, which is more human, and probably why it feels more natural. That said, there is an order to what we find beautiful in the natural world; turns out people usually prefer images that fall within the 1.3 to 1.5 fractal dimension, whether they’re natural or manmade (i.e. a landscape or a Mondrian painting). For numbers geeks, there’s plenty in the pages of Beauty to keep your attention rapt.
When it comes to the tension between beauty and Modernism, even S&W cops to falling into the Modern vortex, citing a book project of theirs with “a classic Modernist layout, complete with grid-based body copy, lots of white space, and sans serif typography. This layout says: Do not read me. I will bore the living shit out of you.”
Even Jan Tschichold, whose famous Die Neue Typographie espoused the ultimate Modern ideals, later backtracked and “renounced Modernism as inherently authoritarian and fascist.” Design schools still teach from this book, despite Tschichold’s own renunciation of it and his later insistence that Modernism has become a “default” style, bereft of human wit and innovation. Grids are easy and comfortable, he posited; you don’t have to be especially inventive to make grid-based design work.
This notion was seconded by the beauty-loving Modernist Max Bill, who, in 1949, declared that “beauty has to be set on the same level as functional demand, since it is a function, too.” Now, as we go down a new Modernist backchannel of smooth, flat, vector graphics and friendly sans serifs that render today’s tech company logos, ad campaigns, and brand identities a strikingly “psychotic sameness,” Beauty is here just in time to remind us that while AI may come to automate much of our lives in the future, we don’t have to let it take our humanity.