Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design

By Hekkert, Paul | Psychology Science, April 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design

Hekkert, Paul, Psychology Science


In this paper I propose that only part of our experience of events, and products in particular, should be coined aesthetic. This part, the aesthetic experience, is restricted to the (dis)pleasure that results from sensory perception. The main part of the paper is devoted to explaining why we experience certain things as gratifying to our senses. Following thinking in evolutionary psychology, it is argued that we aesthetically prefer environmental patterns and features that are beneficial for the development of the senses' functioning and our survival in general. Four general principles of aesthetic pleasure, operating across the senses, can be explained on the basis of such argumentation: (1) maximum effect for minimum means, (2) unity in variety, (3) most advanced, yet acceptable, and (4) optimal match.

Key words: aesthetic principles, pleasure, product experience, product design, evolutionary aesthetics

Design aesthetics: principles of pleasure in design

A typical Sunday afternoon, quiet all around, few people in the street in front of me, and nobody to disturb my flow of thoughts. I pick up my Sony Ericsson T630 mobile and feel how its shape fits comfortably in the palm of my hand. Together with the weight and temperature of the device, it makes for a pleasurable interaction. I push the little joystick and a number of icons pop up on the screen. I want to look up the telephone number of a friend and understand that the image of a book must refer to the directory. Scrolling towards the icon and a second push confirm my prediction: I am on the right track. But, getting to my friend requires a lot more menus to go through and buttons to push and I finally get annoyed by the sheer complexity of the navigation structure. Just looking it up in my paper directory would have been much faster! Disappointed I put the phone aside.

What I describe here is an account of a typical everyday experience with a product. It is an experience since it is demarcated by a beginning and an end to create a whole (Dewey, 1934). During the experience, I performed actions, e.g. lifting, scrolling, pushing, and received reactions from the device, e.g. weight, images, sounds. In Dewey's words, there is a continuous alternation of doing and undergoing that together shape the experience. Since there is a product involved, we can easily call this experience a product experience. The question I would like to raise now is, can we also call this experience an aesthetic experience? Or is this the wrong question and should we rephrase it in, what part of the experience is aesthetic?

In this paper I argue that indeed only part of the full experience (of products) should be considered aesthetic, i.e. pleasurable to the senses. The rest of the experience deals with faculties of the human mind, i.e. cognition and emotion, as we will see, and they should thus be conceptually separated. All three levels of the experience, the aesthetic, understanding, and emotional level, have their own, albeit highly related, underlying processes. These processes are not arbitrary, but lawful. Although this seems rather obvious for the way we understand a product and respond to it emotionally, this also applies to our aesthetic responses to products. This is something we have only recently come to realize and the main part of this paper is devoted to an account of these lawful patterns underlying our aesthetic reactions. Before I discuss these aesthetic principles and their rationale, let us first look more closely at (the history of) the concept of aesthetics.


'Aesthetics' comes from the Greek word aesthesis, referring to sensory perception and understanding or sensuous knowledge. In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Baumgarten picked up the term and changed its meaning into gratification of the senses or sensuous delight (Goldman, 2001). Since works of art are (mostly) produced for this reason, i. …

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