If I describe a user experience (UX) as having visceral appeal, is it the same thing as the user having an aesthetic experience? Traditionally, an aesthetic experience implies a complete, expansive encounter, while visceral appeal implies something less grandiose, a discrete event or several events. For instance, some animated transitions in an interface may have visceral appeal, employing smooth action and subtle bounce. However, to call the experience of those animations an aesthetic one, although not exactly untrue, feels like an exaggeration, at least in the traditional way we think about aesthetics. It’s more like a fragment of an aesthetic experience. If an entire UX is extremely well designed and implemented, you might consider that it would elicit a truer aesthetic experience.
The appreciation of beauty in man-made artifacts has a long history, but the field of aesthetics is transforming along with advances in science and technology. How we understand the human relationship to aesthetics is advancing in ways that UX designers will find interesting and relevant to their practice.
In The Art of Seeing, An Interpretation of an Aesthetic Encounter, Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson define an aesthetic experience as one that “…occurs when information coming from the artwork interacts with information already stored in the viewer’s mind. The result of this conjunction might be a sudden expansion, recombination, or ordering of previously accumulated information, which in turn produces a variety of emotions such a delight, joy, or awe.” (1) Their definition of an aesthetic experience is consistent with the one taken by modern scholars in the field of aesthetic philosophy. It defines aesthetics as a critical reflection on art, culture and nature. (2)
Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson go on to deconstruct the aesthetic experience into four components: cognitive, communicative, perceptual and emotional. (3) This helps us to understand the potential scope and the wholeness of the experience, interpreted since the Age of Enlightenment, a period in Western intellectual history from the late 17th to the late 18th century. One can imagine a curator, who deeply understands how Jackson Pollock contributed to the redefinition of American painting, upon seeing one of his works, having an aesthetic experience that combines the appreciation of color usage and composition with awe at the radically free painting process he had the courage to practice at that point in history.
During the Age of Enlightenment, art began to become a viable commercial enterprise. The buying and selling of art unavoidably led to the questioning of what is good art. Alexander Baumgarten, a German philosopher (1714 -1762) refined the word aesthetics to mean the study of taste and the appreciation of beauty. (4) Prior to the Enlightenment, the meaning of the word aesthetics, based on its Greek roots, meant to receive stimulation from one or more bodily senses.
Now jump forward to the beginning of the 20th century; enter the birth of mass production and the profession of industrial design. Function takes an, equal place or higher next to the aesthetics in the design of new mass-produced products. However, these new artifacts are primarily hands-on tools and devices, some made with new, experimental materials. They are meant to be incorporated into our lives, sat upon, touched and interacted with, increasing the opportunities for multisensory, visceral experiences.
It’s no surprise that Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson defined emotion as a component of an aesthetic encounter with an art object, while Norman defined aesthetics as a component of an emotional experience with a designed object. (5) Popularity is vital to mass production (or mass participants). We designers want to attract, engage and seduce users. We are much more aligned to merchandizing and advertising than we are to the uplifting, transformative experiences of art, although we may get there at some point in the future.
To our advantage as designers, new research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology is pulling the meaning of the term aesthetics back closer to its original Greek definition, focusing on sensory-emotional values. The emerging fields of experimental aesthetics and evolutionary aesthetics both have the potential to provide valuable insights for all designers. Experimental aesthetics uses analysis of individual experience and behavior to understand the perception of works of art, music, movies, websites and other technology-based products.
Evolutionary aesthetics uses theories from evolutionary psychology, which argue that the basic aesthetic preferences of humans have evolved to enhance survival and reproductive success. For example, humans find physical attractiveness in body symmetry because these indicate good health, which leads to greater reproductive success. Alternatively, as another example, humans find beauty in ancestral natural environments essential for survival. (6) Evolutionary aesthetics may be able to pinpoint preferences that are inherent, instinctual or universal to humans. This is knowledge that UX designers could benefit from. For designers, the knowledge that these emerging disciplines are discovering about the way humans think and experience emotions, is a rich and fertile ground for developing interactive experiences that have new and better levels of usability, and of course, more visceral appeal! Part 4 in this series will touch more on this topic.
1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick E. Robinson, The Art of Seeing, an Interpretation of an Aesthetic Encounter, (Los Angeles: Getty 1990), 18.
2. Michael Kelly ed., Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, (NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), ix.
3. Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, The Art of Seeing, (Los Angeles: Getty, 1990), 95.
4. Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten Biography, Wikipedia, accessed December 2, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Gottlieb_Baumgarten
5. Donald A. Norman, Emotional Design, (NY: Basic Books, 2004), 21.
6. Aesthetics, Wikipedia, accessed December 2, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aesthetics