Beauty Is Not Pretty

Let’s make the distinction between beauty and pretty for design’s sake.

The etymology of the words differentiates them:

Pretty is being attractive but lacking in substance or value, and is often deemed unnecessary. It implies superficiality. The word originates from the Old English praettig meaning cleverness, or to deceive or trick.

Beauty, on the other hand, is related to form, visual appeal and excellence. It consists of lasting or substantive qualities. Further definitions include benefits and advantages of something. It comes from the Latin, bellus, meaning fineness.

The common saying, Beauty is only skin deep, really refers to prettiness, and is antithetical to another equally popular saying, True beauty comes from within.

Now, where this relates to design and visual arts is in the concept of aesthetics, which is the study of what makes something visually appealing. Designers who are formally trained learn design principles  (aesthetics) and how to apply them to create work that looks good and also functions well.

People often use the word aesthetics when they actually mean style. They like or don’t like an artwork because it does not appeal to them, and assign value to something based on their own preferences.

Design principles are universal.

Aesthetics is a universal concept and applies to all people at all times, no matter where they live or when they lived. Aesthetics is foundational to style, but is not style. Style is how aesthetic principles are applied.

If we understand aesthetics to be the set of design principles and elements; line, shape, color, texture, balance, rhythm, structure, and such, then we can easily understand how these make sense as “universal” principles. A solid understanding of aesthetics allows us to appreciate a work or art or a design we find on Pinterest even though we might not like it personally.

For example, I am inspired by work from Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, the Vienna Secession, and the Golden Age of Illustration. I do not enjoy Dada or Surrealism so much. However, I can find value in work from those movements because I understand how those artists applied design principles.

Make a comparison.

Consider these two works. Which do you prefer, and why?

l: Ben Shahn, r: Victor Moscoso
l: Ben Shahn, r: Victor Moscoso

Both are the result of thoughtful choices about line, plane, color, shape, balance and pattern. They are very different in approach and style. And neither one would exist without aesthetics.

As you go about your day, you will notice design all around you. Everything you see is the result of someone’s creative effort and how they applied aesthetics. Practice noticing what you like and what you don’t, and ask yourself why you find it appealing or not.

Human beings are drawn to things that are beautiful. While one’s personal taste or cultural bias will cause them to have a preference for one thing over another, as in the choice of a blue vase over another color because their favorite color is blue, the understanding of beauty is universal.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.

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