good design & aesthetic judgment: Just a matter of taste?

As individuals, we are constantly producing our own specific, highly biographical profiles of aesthetic and functional preferences and needs that are always dependent on situational, cultural, and social context. Yet, as a species, we share common patterns of sensory perception and consciousness that are hard-wired into our biological embodiment. And another type of commonality is our social and cultural imprints.

 

The complex interplay of these levels gives meaning to our sensory perceptions and helps us create a mental world that is both highly personal and socially connective. Being aware of the commonalities and constants of aesthetic perception and interpretation, while taking into account cultural and biographical variables, helps the designer ask the right questions, select the most appropriate design tools, and follow an adequate path through the design process.

 

Our visual perception is an evolutionary gift created to select and construct what we call reality from a universe of infinite complexity. In the jungle, savannah, or forest, our perception was most successful in determining whether the behavior of living things was good or bad for us. We extracted life-saving information from the smallest nuances of the movement, posture, facial expression, and figure of every creature we encountered.

We intuitively interpreted every apparition that crossed our path, trying to discern its goals, intentions, needs, abilities, and powers. All these tiny elements of subconscious perception we immediately integrated into mental motion sequences, coherent narratives and related anticipations; we selected the most probable one and reacted accordingly, with attraction or repulsion, with greed or fear, with desire or flight. And all of these processes we accomplished within fractions of a second. 

 

This complex, but very fast way from perception to reaction was so successful that until today we fall back on interpretation models in countless, mostly unconscious aesthetic valuation nuances, which refer as stimulus-response patterns to the evolutionary constant confrontation with living beings and with natural processes of growth, transformation and decay. They involve narrative extrapolations and inferences, up to attributions of intention, such as in anthropomorphic analogies of posture or facial expressions.

 

We see ourselves as modern and rational - and yet these inherited patterns of interpretation control our choices and aesthetic preferences behind the scenes of our everyday consciousness, with the most inconspicuous visual traces. From this perspective, and in an intuitive atmospheric sense, every house has a face, every chair has an attitude, and every visual signal of our environment tells a story about its past and future behavior. All the visual signals we process every second allow us to make inferences and predictions about our interaction with the world and our physical and mental connection to it.

 

Intuitive visual decoding of what we call atmosphere constantly determines our emotions and decisions, much more so than our demand for rationality would suggest. Cultural and biographical imprints modify these basic interpretive schemas, adapting them to social and societal contexts via analogies, metaphors, and associations that give further meaning to our perceptions. Science – for example, gestalt psychology, perceptual psychology, ethology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, or cognitive neuroscience – can help us understand these processes, and designers and architects should take advantage of this when claiming to relate to humans and their needs.

 

Any design process that consciously incorporates these heuristics and fascinating cognitive gifts is not only more holistic and human-oriented than one that focuses solely on zeitgeist, technology, or utilitarian function. It is also, through its far more comprehensive appropriateness, certainly a more effective way to nurture human potential.



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