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, always dependent on the situative, cultural and social context. All the same, as a species we share common patterns of sensual perception and of consciousness which are hardwired in our biological embodiment. And still another sort of commonalities are our social and cultural imprints.

The complex interference of these levels lends meaning to our sensual perceptions, and helps us to create a mental world that is highly personal and socially connective at the same time. Being conscious of the common grounds and constants of aesthetic perception and interpretation while reflecting on cultural and biographical variables will help the designer to ask the right questions, to select the most suitable design tools and to take an adequate pathway through the design process.

 

Our visual perception is an evolutionary gift, created to select and construct what we call reality – out of a universe of infinite complexity. Shaped in jungle, savanna or forest, our perception was most successful when it was essential to find out if the behaviour of living creatures was good or bad for us. We extracted live-saving information from the slightest shades of movement, attitude, composure, facial expression and figure of every creature we encountered.
We interpreted intuitively every appearance crossing our way, trying to read its aims, intentions, needs, skills and powers. All these tiny elements of subconscious perception we integrated immediately into versions of mental film sequences; we choosed the most realistic one and reacted upon it with attraction or repulsion, with greed or fear, with lust or escape. And all these progresses we withdrew within split seconds. 

The evolvement from perception to reaction was so successful that – until today – models of interpretation gained from the constant confrontation with living creatures and natural processes of growth, transformation and decay are instinctively transferred to artefacts of any kind, operating as mostly hidden narrative extrapolations and conclusions.

We see ourselves as modern and rational – but still these inherited patterns of interpretation regulate our decisions and aesthetic preferences behind the wings of our daily consciousness, with the most inconspicuous visual traces. From this point of view and in an intuitive atmospheric sense, every house has got a face, every chair has got an attitude, every visual signal of our surrounding tells a story on its past and future behavior. All the visual signals we are processing every second let us make conclusions and predictions on our interaction with the world and our bodily and mental linkage with it.

 

The intuitive visual decoding of what we call atmosphere is constantly determining our emotions and decisions much stronger than our demand for rationality presumes. Cultural and biographical conditioning modifies this basic set of interpretation schemas and adapts it to social and societal contexts via analogies, metaphors and association that give further meaning to our percepts. Science – e.g. gestalt psychology, psychology of perception, ethology, cultural anthropology, linguistics or cognitive neurosciences – can help us to understand these processes, and designers and architects – if claiming to relate to people and their needs – should take advantage of this.

 

Every design attempt that reflects these heuristics and cognitive competences is necessarily a more holistic approach, and certainly a more effective one.



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