Design DNA: The Abstraction of Physics

By Scott Henderson, IDSA
INNOVATION Summer 2019

Vol. 38 No. 2, p. 9


“Good design should be a projection of life itself, implying an intimate knowledge of the biological and artistic.” — Walter Gropius, 1925



In my last column, I touched on how easy it is to talk about design from the standpoint of lifting the five-step scientific method invented in the late Middle Ages and calling it design thinking, and how blindly following this process like it’s uncontested gospel can rob your design of its soul. This time, let’s take a look at some other exciting and inspiring roads less traveled, such as undervalued nature, psychology, the untapped potential of aesthetics and how the universe itself can flow through your designer mind and manifest itself in your artifacts. 

Appearance, You Wicked Fool 

I recently read a Design Council UK article entitled “What makes a knowledgeable, talented, and skilled designer?” by Yasushi Kusume, the innovation and creative manager at IKEA. In addition to noting that design thinking has led to an unfortunate misunderstanding of design and the rise of the “Sunday” designer (amateur), Kusume talks about the need for designers to contribute to business strategy: “If designers are to extend their contribution beyond appearance, then businesses need to nurture designers with new competencies that enable them to contribute to every stage of the business process. What’s required are experts in business as well as design.” 

While reading the piece, I paused to consider: what is so wrong with a contribution that is focused on appearance? Why the constant need to be the jack of all trades and master of none—watering down our own brand message? We do this for one reason only: We regard aesthetics as superfluous, meaningless and valueless, and as a result, so do our clients. Except without appearance, a design will not become a something—it will remain a nothing. 

As a designer, I have always struggled with the industry’s shame and embarrassment over its role in defining what something looks like. Often, what something looks like and how it works are one and the same. Other times, the logic and reason behind a design’s appearance comes from influences that are more abstract, dealing with ideas rather than a direct association with concrete elements. Whether from one origin or the other, neither is pedestrian. The secret is that aesthetics are not about beauty at all—they are about thought. The stronger the idea, the more beautiful the design. When there is no deeper meaning embedded in the appearance, no story to tell, the aesthetics are meaningless and the design is valueless—it remains a nothing. 

The Subconscious Expression of Nature

Let’s back up a little. OK, let’s back up a lot: 13.8 billon years ago, we had the big bang. This event seems to have shaped everything we have ever seen or touched in a surprisingly consistent way. The aesthetic blueprint left over from the big bang is everywhere around us and affects how we perceive all things. We live within a system of genetic codes resulting from this event, and the system lives within us. Sensitivity to this dynamic is directly related to generating design that most people will like. 

Before you distance yourself from being an authority of the visual and a master of the third dimension—an exceptional skill most people can never begin to approach or understand—consider some of the influences that drive great-looking things: Nature has amazing occurrences like self-similarity, fractals and geometric efficiencies. For example, ice crystals on a frozen glass window look graphically the same as ferns. The great mesa rock formations of Monument Valley look like icebergs, with the exception of color. The salt flats of Bolivia naturally form in perfect hexagonal patterns, just as bees laboriously construct perfect hexagonal honeycombs, capitalizing on geometry’s most efficient mathematical shape. Human lungs, leaves and the negative space left between tree branches all seem to flow from the same mood board. Perhaps the most profound example underscoring that the way something looks is anything but fluff: the network of neurons in the human brain looks identical to the galactic super-structures of the universe itself. At least from a graphical standpoint, the human brain and the universe are identical! 

Human beings are not merely observers of phenomenon like this, preprogrammed to respond positively when they are stitched together in the form of a good design. It’s much bigger than that. We are ourselves components of the system, fibers in the same fabric, made from the same ingredients. We do not choose to appreciate design that is expertly woven from this DNA. We have no choice—we are this DNA! How things look and the meanings their surfaces convey to our deep inner psyche is territory that should not be dismissed as limiting. The closer we align our 3D compositions to this genome of the earth, the broader the audience will get, the better the product will sell and the more soul the design will exude. 

According to Richard Taylor, director of the Materials Science Institute and professor of physics at the University of Oregon, studying aesthetics holds a huge potential benefit to society. Studies show that viewing the fractal patterns of nature can put our brains in a comfort zone that reduces stress by 60% and can even help patients recover from surgery faster. Taylor also remarks on how the fractal drip paintings of Jackson Pollock are impossible to counterfeit. He asks, “To what extent is aesthetics determined by automatic unconscious mechanisms inherent in the artist’s biology, as opposed to their intellectual and cultural concerns?” A fascinating notion, to say the least, that the universe we are part of and made from can flow through us subconsciously and manifest itself in our artifacts!

When a form follows its function, simplicity overtakes the design solution because the user can see firsthand how the product works and can understand it instinctually. This demystification reduces stress and generates a positive experience. Something that is easy to understand is fun to use. Now that fewer and fewer of our products have a mechanical component and much is happening on a screen, nonmechanical appearance and its various meanings, origins and effects are more important than ever.

The Psychology of Aesthetics

Complexity in today’s product design brings into play the psychology of aesthetics as well. The pallet is wide open for new ways a product’s presentation can affect our emotions. Designers have historically been drawn to and instinctually want to create minimalist solutions. Just as the bee uses the hexagon to maximize the structural integrity and space efficiency of the honeycomb, the designer boils away any extras in the design solution in order to be left with the simplest result. However, this simplicity often yields adjectives like cold, austere, serious and gray. Human beings, on the other hand, tend to gravitate toward things like warmth, friendliness, fun, color and even cuteness. This dichotomy sets up new challenges for the designer. 

In some cultures, including our own, lightness equals strength. In the corporate world, for example, you will notice as you sit around a conference table to discuss the serious issues and needs of the company that it’s impossible to do so without your team members interjecting humor, cracking jokes and portraying a cavalier, nonchalant demeanor. This is done as an expression of strength. By making light of things, it shows that even complex challenges are easy to tackle due to your impressive and formidable abilities. Our designs, though, strive for seriousness and weight. Does that make them weak?

If abstraction is playing a bigger role now in aesthetics due to a diminished mechanical world, should all product design continue to communicate serious utility first and foremost? Or are there other factors to consider that speak directly to less considered human behavior like the complex dynamic of lightness? 

In parts of Asia, lightness is also a prevalent theme in design, referred to as “aegyo” in Korea and “kawaii” in Japan. Even road signage in Asia, something the West has deemed strictly no-nonsense territory, has been known to include a cute teddy bear to help lead the way. Aesthetics can have diverse meaning on a global and cultural scale. To dismiss that is to lose! Today, we strive to rise above appearance, and yet design in its most traditional, time-honored, industrial-revolution state —which was originally and mostly about appearance— is far more complex and valuable than we have ever sold it to be. 

Articulating the abstract influences that make a good design great—influences that give today’s great designs cult-like brand loyalty, reverence and soul—requires an understanding of factors well beyond the mechanics of a juice press or tea kettle. A better understanding of these nuances might make us welcome, rather than shun, our role as the virtuosos of the visual and the mavens of manifestation. It might also lessen the urgent need to become as much businesspeople as we are designers.

—Scott Henderson, IDSA
Principal, Scott Henderson Inc.


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