Aesthetic Perception in Design

(Developing a Product Language)


Dr Hengfeng Zuo, PhD, MSc, MA, BSc

Research Fellow in Product Design

Faculty of Technology, Southampton Solent University, UK



Mark Jones, BA, MCSD

Principal Lecturer in Product Design

Faculty of Technology, Southampton Solent University, UK



Mr Qiu Song, MA, BA

Academy of Art & Design, Tsinghua University, China


Dr Liu Xin, PhD, BA

Academy of Art & Design, Tsinghua University, China






Ugly things are hard to sell. Aesthetic designs are often perceived as easier to use. This project has been set up to explore the extent to which young designers are able to manipulate form, styling and create an overall perception of a positive aesthetic. At the same time, we aim to explore the DNA of a product¡¯s aesthetics and develop a linguistic system ¨C product language. This system will differ from the traditional ¡®Semiotics¡¯ or ¡®Semantics¡¯, and although it will include these aspects, it will probe deeper into the elements of formal aesthetics such as the shape, colour, material, texture, proportion, dimensions, space, etc. This language system will be a combination of both formal/external presentation and the representative/embedded meanings of a physical product. It will enable more effective communication between the various people involved in the product development processes and in particular, the relationship between designer and consumer. We have run a series of practice-based design workshops for undergraduate design students both in the UK and China. This paper will showcase the stage results from this workshop.



1.    Aesthetic experience and association


What makes a product aesthetically appealing? This is an old topic but always triggers new debates in the design field. Aesthetics, usually defined as the branch of philosophy that deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste [1], has been recognised since antiquity and has continually evolved over time. The word beauty is commonly applied to things that are pleasing to the senses, imagination and/or understanding. It is often what an artist or a designer endeavours to achieve in their works, either for personal or mass interest and pleasure.


Aesthetics might have different connotations if envisaged from different perspectives, such as functional aesthetics, technological aesthetics, formal aesthetics, psychological and cultural aesthetics etc [2], in addition to the sensory aesthetics, which is the fundamental element of aesthetics. Though, an aesthetic design may not have all these connotations at the same time. However, it is widely agreed by scholars that sensory perception plays an intrinsic role in aesthetic experience [3, 4, 5]. In other words, aesthetic experience starts from pleasing the senses in the first instance. It has even been argued that aesthetic experience is restricted to the (dis)pleasure that results from sensory perception [5]. Actually, we can perhaps say that every experience starts from our senses, as our sensory organs serve as the windows through which human beings are able to know and feel the external world, but not all experiences can be attributed to aesthetic experience. This implies that sensation is not the only element of aesthetics. Although it might represent the dominant one it does not represent the whole aesthetic experience. It is the door through which we enter into the experience of beauty; Individual isolated stimuli, either a colour, a sound, or a smell, can elicit physiological response (e.g., comfort or excitement) such as represented by the change of pulse, blood pressure. However, this cannot equal aesthetic response unless it evokes our emotions.


You might say that you find a particular curve, line or a colour to be beautiful, even when separated from any context. However, there will be something underlying your instinctive response to these stimuli that will share an association with an image or meaning you will have stored in your memory, no matter how vague the recollection. For example, the colour of green might remind you of freshness, purity, hope, or the curvaceous lines resemble organic lives or the form of a beautiful etc. This can be termed as ¡®association¡¯.


Association plays a part in the process of aesthetic experience, and is connected with the formal aspect of an artwork or designed product. Fundamental forms are given meaning through association with previous knowledge of the world stored in long-term memory [6]. With certain associations, meanings and emotions added to the primary sensory experience, could the overall aesthetic experience be enriched to a greater extent?


Exploring the aesthetic association with designed products is one of the purposes of this research.



2.    Product language


No matter what kind of aesthetic experience takes place in our mind, through the sensory interface with any designed product, we often need to express this experience and communicate our thoughts with others (designers, engineers, consumers, etc), in order to understand and generate good product aesthetics and perception. This ¡®expression of information¡¯ can be used as reference point when developing any new product. For such expression and communication, we need a tool/dialogue through which we can work ¨C product language.


In our understanding, product language can speak about product¡¯s functions, forms, style, aesthetics, value, culture, personality, etc. Product language was ever said to have two main constituents: the formal and the semiotic [7, 8]. The term ¡®semiotics¡¯ derives from the linguistics, deals with the study of signs [7]. Another similar term also deriving from linguistics is semantics, which deals with the study of meanings [8, 9]. Product semiotics and product semantics, literally, deals with the signs and meanings of the product. However, this tends to focus more on the symbolic and representative aspect. Product semiotics and semantics might not always speak of aesthetics [9, P151], although there is a connection. For example, they share some commonality when addressing the symbolic /representative meanings or associations of the product. The adoption of the term product language is based on the purpose of covering a wider range of information that a product can deliver per se. Not just the symbolic and representative meanings, but also firstly its formal aesthetic features via the sensory routes and thereafter the connection between the formal aesthetic features and the symbolic/representative meanings. However, there is little evidence to suggest that in-depth research in the field of formal aesthetics has been conducted, despite design researchers having taken a large interest in the product language¡¯s semiotic aspects. There is the potential for combining product semiotics and formal aesthetic features in order to establish a more complete product language system [8].


In this research, our second aim is to explore the ¡®product language¡¯. Initial research was conducted to see if there is any common vocabulary used by people to describe a product¡¯s aesthetics. Also of importance are the associations the product would carry, and the possible correlation between the formal elements and the associations. This could helpfully contribute to establish a sort of formal DNA for a product or group of products. This may serve as the reference point for the design and development of any new member to that family of products.



3.    Preliminary study of aesthetic description


The method for a pilot study was asking people to give their verbal description of product aesthetics. At this stage, we are not going to distinguish which descriptors can be attributed to the aspect of formal aesthetics or the semiotic aspect of a product. We will try to look at this division and a possible correlation between these two aspects in a later stage. We used 10 top products that had already been selected by an international panel of judges, representing those products that were worthy of an international design award and having strongly aesthetic appeal - Hannover, 2005 International Forum (IF) Design awards (see Figure 1). These products represented different product areas such as medical, domestic, technological, industrial etc and were selected as the products that would be used for product description. 113 completed questionnaires were collected from design students at Southampton Solent University. We presented students with a list of pre-selected vocabulary for their reference (see Table 1). However, participants were also encouraged to use their own descriptive words.


From the results we found two phenomena. One, different products may share similar aesthetic properties. Secondly, these described aesthetic properties cover both formal aspect and symbolic aspect or associations, and the formal aesthetic descriptions are correlated to some extent with the associations.


Usually, it seems difficult to find aesthetic properties to fit all design artefacts, and there is no sense in trying to apply the aesthetic features of one product to another [9, P.151]. Nevertheless, this does not mean that different products should not have some commonality in the expression of aesthetic properties. It is this very commonality or similarity in aesthetic features, even if this commonality can be quite limited, that can be applied as a reference when considering the design and aesthetic of a new product. The widely used mood-board is a good example of this.



Figure 1 Top 10 designs presented to design students for aesthetic evaluation




Figure 2 the aesthetic description of three different products


Figure 2, as an example, shows that the aesthetic descriptors ¡®pure¡¯, ¡®architectural¡¯, and ¡®geometrical¡¯ are shared by three different products (a bathtub, a MP3, and a bench). For a direct and simple understanding, we may regard the descriptor ¡®geometrical¡¯ as the description of shape, which is an element of formal aesthetics; whist ¡®architectural¡¯ seems to be the description of an association or metaphor, which has more sense of semiotic property. The descriptor ¡®pure¡¯ can be perceived as a visual simplicity (with the opposite as ¡®noisy¡¯ or ¡®complicated¡¯). It is hard to say that the description of ¡®pure¡¯ is completely a formal aesthetic feature because when we say something is pure, that includes your emotional feeling of appreciation. In other words, verbal description cannot always make a clear division between the formal aesthetics and semiotic meaning. A further statistical analysis revealed that these three descriptors are correlated to a certain extent (with the correlation efficient r³0.5) under this research context.


Another example of such a correlation has been shown between the descriptors of ¡®harmonious¡¯, ¡®delicate¡¯, ¡®organic¡¯, and ¡®curvaceous¡¯. Again, here ¡®curvaceous¡¯ may completely address the formal aspect ¨C shape; whilst ¡®organic¡¯ integrates an association between the product form and the life forms found in nature, whether the human body, types of animals, or a drop of water, usually can be ¡®delicate¡¯ and ¡®curvaceous¡¯. Accordingly, it is easy to understand that these natural forms are correlated with ¡®harmonious¡¯ as they reflect the results of natural evolution. 


It is worth conducting further research to explore these aesthetic descriptors and their correlations in a deeper level. And to see, when product context changes, how these descriptors and correlations change as well. As we have seen, although some products used in this research share some commonality of aesthetic properties, this cannot be taken as a universal principle. It is argued that specific product language and their correlation might be different from, say electronic products, furniture, and transport tools etc.



4.    Student Design Workshop and Evaluation


The third aim of this research is to explore to what extent young designers are able to manipulate form and aesthetics. This has been conducted by running a practice-based design workshop, where students completed a series of exercises plus a six-week design project (MP3 & Speaker Unit). The MP3 project and some of the exercises are attributed to a top-down process, where targeted aesthetic perception comes first and is then translated into the 3D forms designed by students. Other exercises are attributed to a bottom-up process, where the students are shown images of products (4 product categories and 50 images of different styled products for each category), and asked to interpret the aesthetic features into and make a judgement as to the product perception. The Workshop has been conducted at Southampton Solent University (UK) and Tsinghua University (China) respectively. Further analysis of the results will help reveal the extent to which cultural influence may impact on the design aesthetic and the level to which product language can be used cross culturally.


In this paper, we present the completed MP3 & Speaker design project and the evaluation of their aesthetic and associative features. The design brief for MP3 was based on three groups of descriptive words regarding a product aesthetic. We used the correlated descriptors found in the pilot study to constitute the groups. However, we further modified the combination of the descriptive words as follows.


Group 1: Pure, Architectural, Geometrical, and Technical

Group 2: Curvaceous, Organic, and Fun

Group 3: Graceful, Cheerful, and Powerful


Within group 1, we give an extra descriptor of ¡®technical¡¯. Within group 2, ¡®curvaceous¡¯ and ¡®organic¡¯ remain, but added with an extra descriptor ¡®fun¡¯. Within group 3, the three descriptors, from the pilot study, do not show any correlation between each other. Students are then asked to produce designs for the MP3 & Speaker Unit in line with any of the three groups of aesthetic properties. These deliberate arrangements of design brief aim to give more challenges for young designers to manipulate and balance the formal elements (mainly form, colour and surface finish), to match a particular aesthetic target group.


Figure 3 shows some of the activities during the design workshop and some of the finished presentation models of the MP3 and Speaker Unit.



Figure 3 the design workshop conducted in UK and China



Students were given free choice as to which aesthetic group they were to produce designs for, although we found that most students did elect for Group 1 or Group 2. The evaluated results shown below compare the original aesthetic target, as intended by the design students, with those that were perceived by an independent group of students who conducted the evaluation of the finished designs (shown in Figure 4).


     (a)                                                                 (b)


Figure 4 the comparison between the evaluation and the original targets



It is clear that most of the designs of MP3 & Speaker are perceived to have a combination of the three groups of aesthetic features to some extent. However, the designs for Group 1 have most effectively matched the aesthetic target: pure, architectural, geometrical and technical (more than 70% matching, see the marking points in Triangle (b) for Group 1 bunched around the bottom-right corner). The designs for Group 2 (except for one design in this group) also have matched the target fairly well: curvaceous, organic, and fun (more than 60% matching, see the marking points in Triangle (b) for Group 2 positioned slightly away from the top corner). As to the designs for Group 3, only one design was selected from the very few designs in this group. Furthermore, this design was perceived to be within Group 1 rather than Group 3. At the same time, one design from Group 2 has been perceived to have the aesthetic features of Group 3.


The above results seem to imply that certain ambiguity can occur when we try to perceive the aesthetic features of a product, where the word associations have less correlation, e.g., in this case, graceful, cheerful, and powerful. On the other hand, the aesthetic features that have higher correlation appear easier to match. We may borrow a hypothesis of processing fluency of aesthetics to explain this. Rolf Reber and Norbert Schwarz proposed that aesthetic pleasure is a function of the perceiver¡¯s processing dynamics. The more fluently perceivers can process an object, the more positive their aesthetic responses (Rolf Reber and Norbert Schwarz, 2004). In this research case, during either the top-down process of design following aesthetic targets or the bottom-up process of evaluation and perception of completed designs, the more fluently perceivers can process aesthetic features, the more effectively these features can be applied in designs and can be perceived. Group 1 and Group 2 have the aesthetic descriptors correlated, whilst Group 3 have non-correlated descriptors, which may address the reason why fewer students selected Group 3 as the target for design in the first instance, as there was possibility greater ambiguity in this category. 



5.    Further research


Further research work includes three main aspects. Firstly, to expand the product language, including the aesthetic descriptors, to a wider range of product categories, to see what correlation between the descriptors can be drawn and to what extent the commonality can be found. Secondly, on a micro scale, to find how the elements of design form, such as shape, size, colour, materials and textures, proportion, etc correspond to each of the descriptors in product language. These two aspects are the fundamental milestones towards the establishment of a product language system. Thirdly, further exploration focuses on whether the above aspects can be influenced by cultural background. This part of research is currently on going in parallel to the first two aspects. This programme of collaborative research is being conducted between universities in UK, China, and Italy.



6.    Conclusions


Aesthetic experience of a designed product starts from the sensory perception between the product and users. Product language covers the description of formal aesthetics and the description of associations the product carries and the symbolic or representative meanings embedded in the product. These two aspects of description in product language system can be correlated to a certain extent.  However, the boundaries between these two aspects can sometimes become blurred when using verbal description. Preliminary exploration suggests some correlation between the descriptors such as ¡®pure-architectural-geometrical¡¯ and ¡®harmonious-delicate-organic-curvaceous¡¯. Young designers tend to differ in their abilities when manipulating the form of product to match different aesthetic targets. However, when the aesthetic features in one product are consistently correlated, these greater abilities seem to be evident and are facilitated more easily.





This project was supported by the Centre for Advanced Scholarship in Art & Design - Capability Fund, Southampton Solent University.

Thanks are given to Professor Cai Jun, Professor Yan Yang, Academy of Art and Design, Tsinghua University for the arrangements of collaborative design workshop.





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