XIX.4 July + August 2012
Page: 60
Digital Citation

Everything can be beautiful

Marc Hassenzahl

“Beauty is an important ingredient of our daily lives. We admire and praise the beauty of nature, architecture, music, other people… Given its pervasiveness, the lack of research addressing aesthetics in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is striking.”

Not long ago, I started a book chapter on beauty and HCI with these words [1]. And I believe both parts still to be true. Beauty still matters, and HCI still keeps struggling with the concept. The reasons for this are manifold. One can despise beauty because of its notorious elusiveness or fight about whether beauty can be reduced to some numbers on scales—as David Frohlich put it: “It didn’t seem to me to be the kind of thing that could be measured so easily with a seven-point bipolar scale and a pencil” [2], Not to mention the succession of philosophers who already devoted entire lives to understanding the transcendental nature of beauty. Given the myriad views on beauty, it may be more a matter of position than of truth.

Nevertheless, Noam Tractinsky recently summarized what we know research-wise about beauty applied to HCI, which seems to be substantial enough [3]. We know, for example, a fair bit about the processes underlying judgments of beauty. When we look at an object, the percept is emotionally processed. This leads to a positive or negative response—an involuntary, fast, and effortless process. Attributed to the visual gestalt of an object, this response becomes its beauty. We know that the object was capable of creating this response for us and that it might continue to do so in the future. We can reflect and elaborate upon this initial response, and now and then we even revise it.

Those judgments of beauty have consequences. Through its immediacy, beauty becomes the starting point for inferring other attributes, such as how practical or captivating an object is—even when actual hands-on experience is missing [4], Experiencing beauty is a powerful process, and trying to understand when and how people infer quality through a network of interconnected rules is exciting. An even more striking phenomenon is the ambivalent nature of beauty in the consumer’s eye. Sarah Diefenbach calls it the “Beauty Dilemma” [5]. In a way, we all seem to agree that we may enjoy beauty. Maslow thought of it as a fundamental need (a view I do not necessarily agree with) and Raymond Loewy—“the man who streamlined the sales curve”—endowed us with the insight that “between two products equal in price, function, and quality, the one with the most attractive exterior will win.” Nevertheless, Diefenbach finds a deeply ingrained suspicion toward beauty in products. Choosing a primarily beautiful over a primarily usable product is difficult, because it needs to be justified. We want beauty, but we are desperately looking for any “functional alibi” to ease the load of justifying our desire. That is why Apple users insist their gadgets are not only beautiful but also more usable. It is a proper justification for indulging in beauty. There are other envisioned consequences of beauty, such as “attractive things work better.” Knowing about those consequences appears important for any discipline concerned with making things. We cannot switch off people’s perception and evaluation of the things in their environment; thus, we cannot not address beauty (or ugliness, respectively) when designing. We therefore better know the consequences of ignoring beauty.

Given this, it seems as if there is no need to struggle with beauty at all! Close-up beauty judgments seem only half as elusive as they appeared at the outset, and the many interesting and important consequences of beauty make research valuable. However, in a comment on one of my papers on beauty, Kees Overbeeke and Stephan Wensveen stated: “For product designers Hassenzahl’s work is of interest…if it can be used in actual design work. How will it contribute to new product development?” [6]. Now substitute “Hassenzahl’s work” with “research on aesthetics” and you see the problem. Knowing the processes of how we derive a judgment of beauty or the consequences once it is derived tells us nothing about how to make something beautiful.

There is definitely an interest in how form—patterns, order of parts, textures, color—leads to beauty. Tractinsky calls it the antecedents of beauty [3]. But a closer look leaves me empty-handed. Symmetry? Ideal proportions? Recommendations of how to use colors in an aesthetically pleasing way? Frankly, I always mistrusted the potential helpfulness of advice such as “color use should be balanced, and low-saturation pastel colors should be used for backgrounds…” [7]. I hate pastels—most of the time.

“If we could only decipher the aesthetic code!” Tractinsky exclaims [3]—ironically maybe—but to me it reveals the basic problem. In fact, there is nothing to decipher—we simply make beauty. But wait, isn’t the swiftness of the judgment process a hint that beauty is a result of innate mechanisms shaped by evolution? This is how the argument goes: We find, for example, fresh green landscapes beautiful because they signal food and water, and thus, survival. Personally, though, I find certain beaches beautiful (see Figure 1), but I guess I am simply an exception to the rule (there is always an odd one). Besides green landscapes, symmetry and certain proportions seem to be beautiful. They signal health, which in turn is an indicator for reproductive success. Beautiful people are more likely to give birth to healthy children. What I wonder about is that no matter how clever we are, we somehow fail to recognize that a TV set or a car has only a weak relation to reproduction, but we still like it better when it is symmetric. Do we simply fail to differentiate between beautiful humans and cars?

To make something beautiful is about deciding what to make, exposing people to it, and claiming with authority that it is beautiful.

I find that unconvincing, but evolutionary explanations are hard to rebut. I would argue that we don’t need them. Let’s think of the judgment process underlying beauty as a shorthand, a “heuristic.” It is one of those magically fast, automatic System 1 processes that spare our lazy System 2 the deliberate thinking [8]. Without such shorthand, we would be catatonic most of the time, locked into endless choice processes.

Thinking of judgments of beauty as a shorthand is a start, but the crucial question remains: Why do we react, in a split second, to one object positively, but to another one negatively? Why do we find some landscapes, people, or cars more beautiful than others? It is not an especially original observation, but first of all it is a matter of familiarity (e.g., “mere exposure” [9]). For example, Carbon and Leder showed that for car interiors, highly innovative designs were not judged to be beautiful at first [10]. However, repeated unobtrusive exposure (over 30 minutes) quickly increased perception of beauty. Familiarity is a part of Henry Dreyfuss’s notion of “survival form,” that is, introducing something new by basing it on something old. This is akin to Paul Hekkert’s advice to balance typicality and novelty by following the principle of “most advanced, yet acceptable” [11]. To me, however, typicality has a ring of universality, as if “platonic ideals” exist and some objects or people are just more ideal than others. A robin is certainly a more typical bird than a penguin; however, this does not necessarily make it more beautiful. We are just more familiar with the robin. Other people, living somewhere closer to Antarctica, might find a robin odd.

The other important aspect is authority. It is not an immediately perceivable inherent quality that distinguishes a design classic from any other object. It is the fact that accepted authorities announce it to be a design classic, through exhibiting, reviewing, and giving away precious awards. Think about it: What are your reactions to Chair One (Figure 2)? How are those reactions influenced by knowing or not knowing that this chair is one of the masterpieces of Konstantin Grcic, who is, as Zoe Ryan puts it, “widely recognized as one of the most important designers working today”? And, by the way, Zoe Ryan is the Neville Bryan Curator of Design in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Without familiarity or authority guiding us through masterpieces, we have a hard time perceiving beauty. An example is a street musician playing his violin for 43 minutes on a Friday morning at L’Enfant Plaza, Washington, D.C., without attracting much attention [12]. Hardly anyone stopped; the youngish man collected $32. The musician, however, was Joshua Bell, the violin a $3.5 million handcrafted Stradivarius from 1713, and the music masterpieces by Bach, Schubert, Ponce, and Massenet. The same people who passed Bell in the metro without a second look may pay $100 for an admission ticket to listen to him in a concert hall. Now, colleagues of mine argued that there were certainly a number of people appreciating the music, but just not stopping; they simply had other things on their minds. Not stopping for a second is no proof of a failure to perceive beauty. True, so let me qualify. I certainly wouldn’t have recognized the beauty of it outside a concert hall. I am a Philistine, raised on 1980s post-punk and electro-pop. I know “strings” as a preset on my synthesizer. I need the authority of a concert hall to recognize this type of beauty.

In the Washington Post article about the metro experiment, Mark Leithauser, senior curator at the National Gallery, makes it clear: “Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.’” This is about the lack of authority of a place. A restaurant is simply not a gallery.

To make something beautiful is thus not about curves versus rectangles, saturation, hue, symmetry, proportions, or any other hidden “aesthetic code.” To make something beautiful is about deciding what to make, exposing people to it, and claiming with authority that it is beautiful. In this respect beauty is more or less constructed socially. There are no Platonic ideals, waiting to be uncovered. There are ideals waiting to be fashioned, and there is intersubjective agreement to be reached by familiarity and authority.

For design this is freedom and burden at the same time. Although we can establish everything as beautiful—even streamlined toasters—we become more and more aware of the responsibility this implies. It was us and not any evolutionary aesthetic code that established the wasp waist, subjecting women to cracked and deformed ribs, weakened abdominal muscles, and deformed and dislocated internal organs. Was Rubens just depicting the beauty ideal of his time, or was he actually setting it to voluptuous, stout, and luxuriant? Is it some hard-wired evolutionary preference or us who decided to create a beauty ideal in cars that look as if they run on chummy pedestrians rather than on gasoline (Figure 3)? Because everything can be beautiful, we need to think carefully about what we make beautiful and how we set our ideals. This is the true challenge of beauty in HCI and any other design discipline.


1. Hassenzahl, M. Aesthetics in interactive products: Correlates and consequences of beauty. In Product Experience. H.N. Schifferstein and P. Hekkert, eds. Elsevier, 2008, 287–303; http://issuu.com/hassenzahl/docs/beauty-exp-hassenzah-lit-fin

2. Frohlich, D. Beauty as a design prize. Human-Computer Interaction 19, 4 (2004), 359–366. doi:10.1207/s15327051hci1904_4

3. Tractinsky, N. Visual aesthetics. In Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interactton. M. Soegaard and R. Friis, eds. The Interaction-Design.org Foundation; http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/visual_aesthetics.html

4. van Schaik, P., Hassenzahl, M., and Ling, J. Modeling user-experience from an inference perspective. Transactions of Computer-Human Interaction. In press.

5. Diefenbach, S. and Hassenzahl, M. The dilemma of the Hedonic—appreciated, but hard to justify. Interacting with Computers 23, 5 (2011), 461–472. doi:10.1016/j.intcom.2011.07.002

6. Overbeeke, K. and Wensveen, S. Beauty in use. Human-Computer Interactton 19, 4 (2004), 367–369. doi:10.1207/s15327051hci1904_5

7. Sutcliffe, A. Designing for user engagement: Aesthetic and attractive user interfaces. Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics 2, 1 (2009), 1–55. doi:10.2200/S00210ED1V01Y200910HCI005

8. Kahneman, D. Thinking Fast and Slow. Allen Lane, 2011.

9. Zajonc, R.B. Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences. American Psychologist 35, 2 (1980), 151–175. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.35.2.151

10. Carbon, C.-C. and Leder, H. The Repeated Evaluation Technique (RET). A method to capture dynamic effects of innovativeness and attractiveness. Applied Cognitive Psychology 19, 5 (2005), 587–601. doi:10.1002/acp.1098

11. Hekkert, P., Snelders, D., and van Wieringen, P.C.W. ‘Most advanced, yet acceptable’: Typicality and novelty as joint predictors of aesthetic preference in industrial design. British Journal of Psychology 94, 1 (2003), 111–124. doi:10.1348/000712603762842147

12. Weingarten, G. Pearls before breakfast. The Washington Post. (April 8, 2007); http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html


Marc Hassenzahl is a professor and head of the Experience Design Group at the Folkwang University of Arts in Essen, Germany. He is interested in the positive affective and motivational aspects of interactive technologies—in short: user experience.


F1Figure 1. La Mer Blanche (Brittany, France), one of my favorite beaches.

F2Figure 2. Chair One by Konstantin Grcic (Photograph by René Spitz).

F3Figure 3. “I just made what you want?”—“I just want what you made!”—“Mpffff!” (Credit: Frank Josten; http://www.frankjosten-studio.com/)

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