Making Things Pretty

There is this notion out there of designers being seen as people who only make things pretty as if that’s somehow lesser. Just look at the world right now, be it American strip malls or public housing. How much of it is so extremely ugly and built under the guise of functionality, even though it doesn’t work all that well? You can drive for hours and hours through this country, on highways and byways, without encountering beauty. It’s amazing.

— Stefan Sagmeister, The Great Discontent

“Form follows function.” It’s the advice told time and time again — most ardently in Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography — by which many graphic designers strive to live. After all, if a piece is beautiful, but doesn’t fulfill its purpose, it isn’t worth much. But, the reverse of this statement — the idea that most no one thinks about — is also true. If a piece is functional, but not beautiful it isn’t worth much either. 

Sure, in the practical sense, a functional, yet ugly piece is certainly worth a bit more than a beautiful, yet useless one. But, humans are attracted to the beautiful. Beauty lends personality, meaning, and intimacy to objects — traits that a purely functional piece could quite probably never possess. These qualities are important to us because they make objects relatable. They make us actually want to use them.

Beauty’s ability to fill an object with meaning is exactly why it’s important. Therefore, while it is secondary to functionality, beauty should never be forgotten or ignored. Of course, designers know this and strive to make beauty a part of our designs. 

Even so, we often downplay this beauty in our design rationales. We say that a decorative divider exists to “visually separate information” not that the style of divider was chosen because it adds beauty to the design. In fact, in my own design rationales, I often find myself saying that an element “adds visual interest,” not that it “adds beauty.” 

This is because of the strangely common mistaken belief that the responsibility of designers to make things beautiful “is somehow lesser,” as Stefan Sagmeister states in the quote above, than the responsibilities of people with other job titles — most notably our coworkers and clients. 

This stigma can be countered, of course, with the fact that making things beautiful is not the only responsibility of designers. And, more importantly, with the matter that beauty, as discussed previously, is important. 

I’m unsure how this delusion perpetuated itself, but I can say that if it originated from non-designers, then the responsible party must certainly think highly of themselves in order to view designers as “lesser” simply because part of a designer’s job includes “making things pretty” — a craft with importance which they must not comprehend. And, if it originated from designers… what’s up with that? Either way, the spread of this idea — that making beautiful things is not important — must be stopped.