The Aesthetics and Psychology of Stuff

18May07

Today, we generally acknowledge that perhaps the most meaningful of all possible experiences come from serendipity — finding greatness in the least likely of places. Discovering the profound in the prosaic, as a friend and colleague puts it, is the rarest of pleasures.

This notion has tremendous implications for the design of everything around us. A beautiful product is not enough. A novel or exciting product is not enough. People want products that both surprise and delight them, whether it’s an MP3 player that organizes music the way we do in real life, a shoe that fights poverty or a robotic vacuum cleaner that acts as a surrogate pet. This is all table stakes in today’s market — I don’t even consider it a particularly interesting discussion.

Here’s what is interesting: Serendipity, the discovery of greatness in the most unexpected place, has only been a real virtue for the last 150 years, and only then thanks to a handful of folks who argued that art needed to be cheap and handmade. Also, one more thing, the best work of a great blacksmith is every bit as valid as the finest portrait by a court painter. The movement is Arts and Crafts, and the prime mover is William Morris, who devoted his life to promoting the resonant power of humble, well-crafted goods and the people who made them.

Before Morris, an Englishman of the mid- to late-19th Century, changed the discourse, Western society understood beauty as something found in nature, the work of the Renaissance masters and in the ostentatious architecture of royalty. After Morris, the traditional rural house, hewn from simple, natural materials, became the ideal of taste and meaning.

He also founded the very first independent design firm, best known as Morris and Company. He designed beautiful tapestries, wallpaper, even hand-painted stained glass. He founded a legendarily luxe printing company, Kelmscott Press, that brought the beauty of illuminated manuscripts to the middle classes. The consciousness was raised, an art and architecture movement was born and Western Society’s conception of aesthetics broadened to include everyday objects.

THIS MEANS SOMETHING, as E-lab used to say in its presentations. Perhaps the most important realization to the development of the modern consumer economy was an essential insight that Morris highlighted, whether he meant to or not: Regardless of objective aesthetic or emotional value, people care more about the little things they use thousands of times a day — their front doors, their kitchens, their pencils, their dens — than they do about the big things that most can only enjoy in a gallery. This makes sense: People are physical, mental and emotional. If you form a physical bond to an object through repeated contact, you will also form an emotional bond. It can either be a positive bond or a negative bond. The stuff that we bond positively to are the hardest to take from us — just ask anyone who has been using a Macintosh since 1984 if they would ever willingly use a Windows machine.

This is an essential insight to consider when making anything — people don’t love good design, they love stuff that loves them back.

The greatest irony of William Morris’s life is that he tapped into the secret of design as an added virtue for the simplest things in life — thereby creating the idea that one object could be superior to another with the identical function because of some vague notion of artistic merit. All of this from a socialist. Life’s like that sometimes, isn’t it?

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2 Responses to “The Aesthetics and Psychology of Stuff”

  1. 1 Paul

    excellent site! very engaging and challenging material! BTW, what’s the feed for the blog? I see entry feeds for each entry but nothing for the blog itself.

  2. 2 morepete

    Hi Paul,

    My apologies that the feed isn’t obvious. You can subscribe at: https://patternlinguist.wordpress.com/feed/

    Thanks for reading!

    Pete


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