Design Principle: Aesthetic-Usability Effect

There’s an old saying in industrial design (the field of engineering where designers make day-to-day stuff, like potato peelers and hedge trimmers): “form follows function.” This basic idea suggests that the design of stuff should be built around precisely what it is used for and how people use it. Chairs, for example, should have a little molding in them for the ol’ buttocks; a chair’s function requires it to be comfortable, so its form should should be made to match.

This philosophy is all fine and dandy when it comes to usability. After all, isn’t that the number one priority—to make things work well? For the better part of the last century, usability has been the primary focus. But this philosophy doesn’t really address one very important consideration: aesthetics. The thought for many design firms, sadly, has often been, “well if it works well, who cares what it looks like?”

If you look at the evolution of computer designs, you’ll notice that this was the primary focus for pretty much all computer companies except for Apple Corporation. And you might even look at how potato peelers were made up until about 10 years ago. Oh, sure, all those ugly IBM computers and that awful old potato peeler work, but they sure don’t look nice. Don’t you, visually, much prefer the aesthetic versions (and I don’t think I need to describe which is which)?





Obviously, since the success of Apple, many companies have worked to be more design-centric. Even Target started paying high-profile designers to create ordinary objects, like garbage cans and toilet brush cleaners to make simple things look prettier. The crazy thing is, it worked. Companies spent a little more money on design, and products started flying off the shelves.

Most of us would like to think that this is because human beings just like pretty things. And, certainly, we do. But recent research has actually shown that besides liking how things look, we actually think pretty things work better, even if they don’t. In fact, numerous studies have found that, technically, Apple computers and products are not as usable—meaning, when people use them, they get tripped up more frequently and have a harder time understanding how to use the product than with other similar devices. The crazy thing is, these same people either don’t notice or don’t care. If the product looks nice, they assume it works better. The same concept has been found true of Mini Cooper cars. They have a lot of quirks (like the speedometer is where the radio should be and the clock is on the ceiling!), but people forgive them because the car just looks cool.

Cognitive psychologist Donald Norman has spent a good portion of his career looking into this phenomenon. And, over and over again, the research proves it: attractive things simply just work better. In other words, the more aesthetically pleasing a product is, the more usable it becomes (even if it isn’t that usable).

So what does this mean? Fortunately, as we move into a new millennium, we might see a shift back into nicely designed items. We already do. Discount stores like Walmart didn’t use to buy products designed by high-profile designers and high profile designers like Dyson didn’t use to design vacuums. But now they do because people think they are better products. Hopefully the trend will move back into architecture, too. For too long, we’ve seen boring old boxy buildings. If buildings could be more attractive, we might just be more productive in them!