Posts Tagged ‘Aesthetics’

Consumers evoke from the visual appearance of a product their impressions of its beauty or aesthetics. They may also interpret physical features embedded in the product form (e.g., handles, switches, curvature) as cues for a proper use of the product. But there is an additional hidden layer of the design that may influence the judgement of consumers, that is the intention of the product designer(s). The intention could be an idea or a motive behind the design, as to what a designer wanted to achieve. However, intentions, only implicit in product appearance, may not be clear or easy to infer.

The intention of a designer may correspond to the artistic creativity of the product’s visual design (i.e., aesthetic appeal), its purpose and mode of use, and furthermore, extending symbolic meanings (e.g., social values, self-image of the target users). For a consumer, judgement could be a question of what one infers and understands from the product’s appearance, and how close one understands it to be the intention of the designer. For example, a consumer can make inferences from cues in the product form  (e.g., an espresso machine) about its appropriate function (e.g., how to insert a coffee capsule in order to make a drink) — but a consumer may ask herself, is that the way the designer intended the product to be used?  These inferences are interrelated and complementary in determining the ‘correct’ purpose, function or meaning of a product. There are original and innovative products for which the answers are more difficult to produce than for others based only on a product’s appearance.

  • Note: Colours and signs on the surface of a product may be informative in regard to function as well as symbolic associations of a product.

The researchers da Silva, Crilly and Hekkert (2015) investigated if and how consumers’ knowledge of the designers’ intentions can influence their appreciation of the respective products. Yet, in acknowledgement that consumers are likely to derive varied inferences on intention (some of them mistaken) from visual images of products, the researchers present verbal statements on intentions in addition to images. Moreover, their studies show that there is important significance to the contribution of the verbal statements, explicitly informing consumers-respondents of designers’ intentions, in influencing (improving) consumers’ appreciation of products (1).

To  begin with, consumers usually have different conceptions and understanding of design than professionals in the field. Thereby, most consumers are not familiar with terminology in the domain of design (e.g., typicality/novelty, complexity, unity, harmony) and may use their own vocabulary to describe attributes of appearance; if the same terms are used, they may not have the same meaning or interpretation among designers and common consumers (2). Nevertheless, consumers have innate tastes for design (e.g., based on principles of Gestalt), and with time they may develop better comprehension, appraisal skills, and refined preferences for design of artefacts (as well as buildings, paintings, photographs etc.). The preferences of individuals may progress as they develop greater design acumen and accumulate more experience in reacting to designed objects while preferences may also be affected by one’s personality traits. Design acumen, in particular, pertains to the aptitude or approach of people to visual design, which may be characterised by quicker sensory connections, greater sophistication of preferences, and stronger propensity for processing visual versus verbal information (3). The gaps prevailing between consumers and designers in domain knowledge and experience may cause diversions when making inferences directly about a product as well as when ‘reading’ the designer’s intention from the product’s appearance.

The starting point of da Silva, Crilly and Hekkert posits that “the designer’s intention can intuitively be regarded as the essence of a product and that knowledge of this intention can therefore affect how that product is appreciated” (p. 22). The ‘essence’ describes how a product is supposed to behave or perform as foreseen by the designer; thinking about it by consumers can give them pleasure as much as perceiving the product’s features.

Appreciation in Study 1 is measured as a composite of five scale items — liking, beauty, attractiveness, pleasingness, and niceness; it is a form of ‘valence judgement’ but with a strong “flavour” of aesthetics, a seeming remainder of its origin as a scale of aesthetic appreciation adapted by the researchers to represent general product appreciation.

  • Note: The degree to which the researchers succeeded in expanding the meaning of ‘appreciation’ may have some bearing on the findings where respondents make judgements beyond aesthetics (e.g., the scale lacks an item on ‘usefulness’).

At first it is established that knowledge of explicit intentions of designers, relating to 15 products in Study 1, influenced the appreciation of the designed products for good or bad (i.e., in absolute values) vis-à-vis the appreciation based on pictures alone. Subsequently, the researchers found support for overall increase in appreciation (i.e., positive effect) following the exposure to explicit statements of the designers’ intentions.

A deeper examination of the results revealed, however, that for three products there was a more substantial improvement; for ten products a moderate or minor increase was found due to intention knowledge; and two products suffered a decrement in appreciation. Furthermore, the less a product was appreciated based only on its image, the more it could gain in appreciation after consumers were informed of the designer’s intention. Products do not receive higher post-appreciation merely because they were appreciated better in the first place. More conspicuously, for products that were more difficult to interpret and judge based on their visual image, knowledge of the designer’s intention could help consumers-respondents realise and appreciate much better their purpose and why they were designed in that particular way, considering both their visual appeal and function (but there is a qualification to that, later explained).

The second study examined reasons for changes in appreciation following to being informed of designers’ intentions. Study 2 aimed to distinguish between appreciation that is due to appraisal of the intention per se and appreciation attributed to how well a product fulfills a designer’s intention, independent of whether a consumer approves or not of the intention itself. This study concentrated on three of the products used in Study 1, described briefly with their stated intentions (images included in the article):

  • A cross-cultural memory game (Product B) — The game “was designed with the aim of making the inhabitants of The Netherlands aware of their similarities instead of their differences” (i.e., comparing elements of Dutch and Middle Eastern cultures). [Product B gained the most in post-appreciation in Study 1.]
  • A partially transparent bag (Product C) — Things that are no longer in need, but are still in good condition, can be left in this bag on the street for anyone interested: “It was designed with the aim of enabling people to be generous towards strangers.” [Moderate gain.]
  • A “fitted-form” kitchen cupboard (Product G) — In this cupboard everyday products can be stored in fitted compartments according to their exact shapes. The designer’s intention said the product “was designed with the aim of helping people appreciate the comfortable predictability of daily household task”. [Product G gained the least in post-appreciation in Study 1.]

Consistent with Study 1, these three products were appreciated similarly and to a high degree based on images alone, and their appreciation increased to large, medium and small degrees after being informed of intentions. It is noted, however, that overall just half of respondents reported that knowing an intention changed how much they liked the respective product (about two-thirds for B, half for C, and a third for G). Subsequently respondents were probed about their reasons for changes in appreciation (liking) and specifically about their assessment of the product as means to achieve the stated intention. Three themes emerged as underlying the influence of intention knowledge on product appreciation: (a) perception of the product; (b) evaluation of the intention; and (c) evaluation of the product as a means to fulfill its intention (as explicitly queried).

Knowledge of the designer’s intention can change the way consumers perceive the product, its form and features. Firstly, it can make the product appear more interesting, such as by adding an element of surprise, an unexpected insight about its form (found especially for product B). In some cases it simply helps to comprehend the product’s form. The insight gained from knowing the designer’s intention may be expressed in revealing a new meaning of the product that improves appreciation (e.g., a more positive social ‘giving’ meaning of product C). But here is a snag — if the intention consumers are told of contradicts the meaning they assigned to the product when initially perceiving its image, it may inversely decrease one’s appreciation. For example, the ‘form-fitted’ cupboard (G) may seem nicely chaotic, but the way a consumer-participant interpreted it does not agree with the intention given by the designer (it ‘steals’ something from its attraction), and therefore the consumer becomes disappointed.

Upon being informed of the designer’s intention, a consumer may appreciate an idea or cause expressed in the intention itself (e.g., on merit of being morally virtuous, products B and C). The positive attitude towards the intention would then be transferred to the product (e.g., ‘helping people is a very beautiful thing’ in reference to C). On the downside, knowing an intention may push consumers away from a product (e.g., disliking the ‘predictability’ of one’s behaviour underlying product G). A product may thus gain or lose consumers’ favour in so far as the intention reflects on its essence.

But relying on a (declared) intention for the idea, cause or aim it conveys is not a sufficient criterion for driving appreciation upper or lower. Consumers also consider, as expected of them, whether the product is an able means to implement an idea or fulfill its aim. It is not just about what the designer intended to achieve but also how well a product was designed to achieve the designer’s goal. Participants in Study 2 were found to hold a product in favour for its capacity to fulfill its intended aim, even though they did not judge it as virtuous or worthy. There were also opposite cases where appreciation decreased but participants pointed out that the fault was not in the intention, rather in its implementation (e.g., “I think it’s a good idea [intention] but this [product C] won’t really work”). The authors suggest that participants use references in their judgements, including alternative known or imagined products which they believe to be more successful for fulfilling a similar aim or alternative aims or causes they could think of as appropriate for the same product.

The researchers find evidence in participants’ explanations suggesting they see how efficiency can be beautiful (e.g., how materials are used optimally and aesthetically). They relate this notion to a design principle of obtaining ‘maximum-effect-from-minimum-means’. Participants also endorsed novel or unusual means to realise the intention behind a product. Hekkert defined the principle above as one of the goals to pursue for a pleasing design.  It means conveying more information through fewer and simpler features, creating more meanings through a single construct, and applying metaphors. Hekkert also recommended a sensible balance between typicality and novelty (‘most advanced, yet acceptable’) that will inspire consumers but not intimidate them (4).

  • This research was carried out as part of the Project UMA: “Unified Model of Aesthetics” for designed artefacts at the Department of Industrial Design, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. (See how the model depicts a balance in meeting safety needs versus accomplishment needs for aesthetic pleasure: connectedness-autonomy, unity-variety, typicality-novelty).

Knowledge of the intentions of designers can elucidate for consumers why a product was designed to appear and to be used in a particular way. It contributes motivation or cause (e.g., social solidarity, energy-saving) for obtaining and using the designed product. But the intention should be reasonable and agreeable to consumers, and the product design in practice has to convince consumers it is fit and capable to fulfill the intention. It is nevertheless desirable that the product is visually pleasing, as an object of aesthetic appeal and as a communicator of functional and symbolic meanings.

When marketers assess that consumers are likely to have greater difficulty to interpret a product visual design and infer the intention behind it, they may wisely accompany a presentation of the product with a statement by the designer. This would apply, for instance, to innovative products, early products of their type, or original concepts for known products. The designer may introduce the design concept, his or her intention or aim, and perhaps how it was derived; this introduction may be delivered in text as well as video in assorted media as suitable (print, online, mobile). On the part of consumers, exposure to the designer’s viewpoint would  enrich their shopping and purchasing experience, helping them to develop better-tuned visual impressions and judgements of products.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


(1) How People’s Appreciation of Products Is Affected by Their Knowledge of the Designers’ Intentions; Odette da Silva, Nathan Crilly, & Paul Hekkert, 2015; International Journal of Design, 9 (2), pp. 21-33.

(2) How Consumers Perceive Product Appearance: The Identification of Three Product Appearance Attributes; Janneke Blijlevens, Marielle E.H. Creusen, & Jan P.L. Schoorman, 2009; International Journal of Design, 3 (3), pp. 27-35.

(3) Seeking the Ideal Form: Product Design and Consumer Response; Peter H. Bloch, 1995; Journal of Marketing, 59 (3), pp. 16-29.

(4) Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design; Paul Hekkert, 2006; Psychology Science, 48 (2), pp. 157-172.

Read Full Post »

Oftentimes references to and appraisals of product design (e.g., on websites, in magazines) concentrate on the aesthetics of the product’s visual appearance. The importance of this facet of visual design of products is now well acknowledged, particularly in attracting consumers to them. This is of no dispute. Visual design, however, has an informational capacity and it can communicate to consumers on other aspects embedded in the product or reflected from it.  These facets are functional, symbolic (personal, social) and ergonomic (affecting ease-of-use) that may be inferred from visual design or appearance of a product. They deserve no less attention than aesthetics in discussions of product design from a marketing point-of-view.

Product design did not gain much awareness or interest from marketing and consumer scholars until the mid-1990s. The researchers Peter Bloch and Robert Veryzer made each this critical observation in separate articles in 1995 as they started to conceptualise the meanings and roles of product design with respect to consumer behaviour.  Bloch referred to the powers of good design in attracting consumers, communicating to them, and adding value by enhancing the quality of their usage experiences (1). Veryzer wrote of the low relevance consumer researchers attributed to product design and aesthetics (e.g., superficial styling, related primarily to works of art) that impeded the progress of consumer research to that time in these areas. He set out to start developing a theory on the contributions of product design to consumer-product interactions, and how different considerations (e.g., aesthetic, functional, communication) affect varied consumer reactions (e.g., understanding the product, aesthetic response)(2). Both Bloch and Veryzer recognized the importance of the communicative functions of visual product design beyond aesthetics.

The aesthetics of appearance of a product ascribe to its beauty, evoking visual appeal. It relies on physical properties in the design, such as form, size (proportions), texture (materials) and colours, and how they combine or belong together (i.e., a holistic view, unity of design elements). professional designers may relate to harmony and balance. More commonly, innate preferences of people are shaped by Gestalt rules pertaining, for example, to symmetry, similarity, proximity, repetition and closure. An aesthetic pleasing appearance  increases consumers’ attraction to look at products longer, hold and obtain them.

Nevertheless, the visual design of a product can tell consumers beyond experiencing its aesthetics and appeal. Design of a product entails generally the composition and arrangement of components and overall configuration of the product. Only some of the components are readily visible to consumers (i.e., on surface); many others most relevant to the product’s orderly functioning are hidden from them, and for a good reason. Thereof appearance plays a vital role in communicating to consumers about the function and usage of a product. While it is widely accepted that “form follows function”, one should observe that in many cases form tells people how a product can or should be used (i.e., from a consumer perspective, function is determined by form). In its communicative role, design incorporates important visual and iconic cues about product use and mode of operation. The visual comprehensibility of a product is therefore vital to successful consumer-product interaction (2).

  • Features of products (e.g., electric, electronic and digital), and how to activate them, should be easily identifiable; symbols need to be self-explanatory as much as possible or be easily learnt. The consumer should be able to make basic operations without reading a manual, especially if he or she is experienced with that type of product (e.g., setting parameters and taking a photo shot on a camera). Manuals are more often refered for performing more complex or specialised tasks. Consumers expect to receive fundamental information about the product from its appearance.

Crilly, Moultrie, and Clarkson elaborate on Shannon’s model of communication, as formerly interpreted in the context of product design.

  • The source is the designer or design team
  • The transmitter is the product by its (visual) design
  • The channel is the environment in which consumer-product interaction occurs
  • The receiver entails the perceptual senses of the consumer
  • The destination is the consumer’s faculty for response, incorporating cognitive, affective and behavioural responses.

The researchers concentrate on cognitive responses to visual product design, and identify through a literature review three categories: (a) Aesthetic Impression is the sensation that results from perception of attractiveness; (b) Semantic Interpretation pertains to what a product seems to say about its function, mode-of-use and qualities; and (c) Symbolic Association relates to what a product may say about its owner or user (personal and social significance attached to the design). Decoding the “design message” from appearance and making judgements thereafter is part of cognitive response (3). Crilly et al. note that different types of emotions may stem from all cognitive categories; moreover, there are considerable interdependencies between cognitive and affective responses, where cognition is leading to affect and affect is influencing cognition.

Crilly and his colleagues suggest that aesthetic impression should account for objective qualities of design as well as subjective experiences of consumers. As a second dimension they distinguish between information and concinnity (harmonious arrangement of elements) originating in design. Information may objectively refer to the level of contrast between elements comprising the product’s design against its surroundings or among the elements themselves, while subjective information reflects a degree of novelty perceived by consumers, arising from deviation of the design from forms familiar to them. Novelty induces greater interest, but care should be taken because excessive deviations might cause greater difficulty for consumers to identify the correct category a product belongs in (e.g., by comparing to familiar prototypes), leading to confusion. Concinnity at an objective level would indicate whether the design is in good order (e.g., following Gestalt rules); subjectively, it reflects the extent to which the design makes sense to viewers (i.e., easier to understand, assign meaning, based for example on cultural norms or comparison to other relevant objects).

Semantic interpretation and symbolic association may play a more complex or nuanced role in communication from design (Veryzer recommended distinguishing between aesthetic and communicative roles). The semantics of design pertain primarily to qualities of the product, mode-of-operation and ease-of-use. Physical properties are relevant mainly with respect to how a product should be handled (e.g., its density, stability, fragility). Most importantly, Crilly et al. refer to how consumers may infer from visible components of the product — its layout, feature buttons or switches, levers etc. — how to operate it correctly and more effectively, and how easy using the product is going to be. Among the examples they give: a grooved handle may suggest in what direction it should be turned and how much force should be applied, or flashing switches signal they should be switched off.

The semantics implied from design may refer in particular to affordances (what a product is suitable for or made to do, given its form); constraints (what a product is limited in doing and should not be forced to do); and mappings (how a user’s actions relate to corresponding behaviour of the system). Mapping suggests in this context an interesting aspect of visual compatibility that seems desirable between ‘handles’  for operating a product and its form and response — buttons of a gas stove arranged to fit the layout of burners in the stove itself; levers in an electric-car-seat-control-panel for moving the seat arranged to represent the seat itself.

Think for a moment of TV sets, but not the current flat screens; reflect instead on TV “boxes” from past decades, before the 1990s. This domain demonstrates so well how technology and tastes in design have changed side-by-side over the years. The TV sets from the 1940s to 1970s were casted in a wooden “box” housing.  The TV set was perceived to a great extent as a piece of furniture in the house, and very likely it was designed in wood to match better in look with other furnitures. Early on owners used to put their TV set in a cabin with doors, as if they were not sure about its nature and wanted to conceal it in a furniture. From the 1950s the attitude changed and people were more open and happy to show the innovative technological appliance in their house. From the late 1970s the wooden housing was replaced with injection-moulded plastic. At first frames still adopted a wooden look but the appearance has gradually changed to black and grey-metalic look. The trend transformed from reflecting craftmanship and traditional warm appearance to modern cool appearance that puts technology a front.

Through several decades control panels were usually visible on the right-hand side of the screen. In the 1990s, as remote control handsets became more prevalent, control panels were reduced and became less apparent. This was partly done to leave more space for larger screens (e.g., 26”). Then came the flat screens (plasma or LCD, >32”), and control panels vanished from the front of TV.  Some controls may be found on the TV back but most selections and tuning the viewer is expected to perform on the remote control.  This is the second important change in TV sets: they leave no visual cues for their mode-of-operation easily accessible on the product itself, relying on its remote accessory. The TV sets are now made to take least space possible in the house. Manufacturers of flat screen TVs give priority to a “clean” visual design outwards and their advanced technology inwards. But from a communicative perspective, one may ask if this is the better user-friendly approach. It could be more comfortable and re-assuring for users to place a few controls (e.g., power, sound, channel buttons) on a front panel below the screen rather than hide them on the TV back.

Symbolic association turns our attention from the product to its owner or user. It may involve attributes that correspond to the user’s own personality (e.g., enhance or corroborate one’s self-image) as well as reflect desirable attributes or social standing of the user to others based on product’s appearance. Those product-person symbols may be shaped by the sociocultural context of use. Symbolic associations have been classified in literature, for example, as self-expressive symbolism (supporting one’s unique personality, idiosyncrasy or distinction, and differentiation from others) and categorical symbolism (suggesting one’s group membership, including social position and status, as reflected frequently via shared consumption symbols)(3).

One of the more prominent examples given for products with strong symbolic associations are clothing garments, especially the more fashionable they are, and contingent on type (materials), purpose and style of the garment. Let us look, however, to another domain perhaps less often used as an example: Think of bright beige leather seats in a car. Such seats reflect elegance and high quality; to the car’s owner the leather may also signal softness and comfort (semantic meanings). The leather seats may symbolise elegance of the car owner himself, enhance self-importance to the owner and suggest to others who see the car on the street that the owner has to be a respected person of higher prestige. (The implied symbols seem to matter to men more than to women.)

Consumers perceive physical properties in forming impression of a product’s visual design and appraising it. But to formulate their experience or judgements they translate or map the physical terms (e.g., form, size, colour, surface and texture) onto abstract attributes. Blijlevens, Creusen and Schoorman who studied and identified three such attributes for durable products note that consumers differ, however, from professional (industrial) designers in their understanding and the attributes they use to describe a design. Design literature uses terms such as harmony, unity, symmetry, typicality, massiveness and naturalness that ordinary or design-novice consumers are not familiar with and may not understand. The undesirable implication is that consumers frequently do not grasp the meaning of appearance embedded in the product as intended by its designers (4).

  • The three attributes in the model based on consumer descriptions constructed by Blijlevens et al. are: (a) Modernity (descriptions of ‘modern’, ‘oldish/old-fashioned’ [reversed], ‘futuristic’; (b) Simplicity (‘simple’, ‘minimalistic’, ‘plain’); (c) Playfulness (‘playful’, ‘funny’). Of the three attributes, modernity coincides directly with a parallel attribute used by designers while simplicity correlates inversely with an attribute of ‘complexity’ in design literature. Yet, playfulness  is an attribute more distinctive of consumers with no attribute close enough in meaning as used by designers (regarded as more accurate and deeper attributes).
  • The researchers suggest that (i) consumers’ attributes should complement, not replace, those used by designers to provide consumer viewpoint; (ii) there should be continued effort to study the mapping of physical properties onto consumer attributes; and (iii) marketers should be cognizant of changes in tastes and fashions of aesthetics and visual design that may alter existing relations or mappings over time.

Aesthetic appearance of products is a likely source of pleasure; consumers enjoy talking about appealing and creative visual design, the more so when they have greater acumen in these matters. But the picture cannot be complete, from a marketing perspective, without relating to semantic and symbolic connotations emanating from the visual design of a product because they have important influence on consumer decisions. They are significant to the practical use of a product as well as extended psychological (self-image) and social implications of product ownership and usage.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


(1) Seeking the Ideal Form: Product Design and Consumer Response; Peter H. Bloch, 1995; Journal of Marketing, 59 (3), pp. 16-29.

(2) The Place of Product Design and Aesthetics in Consumer Research; Robert W. Veryzer Jr., 1995; in NA — Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 22, F.R. Kardes and M. Sujan (eds.), pp. 641-645, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.    http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=7824

(3) Seeing Things: Consumer Response to the Visual Domain in Product Design; Nathan Crilly, James Moultrie, & P. John Clarkson, 2004; Design Studies, 25 (6), pp. 547-577.

(4) How Consumers Perceive Product Appearance: The Identification of Three Product Appearance Attributes; Janneke Blijlevens, Marielle E.H. Creusen, & Jan P. Schoorman, 2009; International Journal of Design, 3(3), pp. 27-35.  http://www.ijdesign.org/ojs/index.php/IJDesign/article/view/535/272

Read Full Post »