Jonathan Ive and Don Norman on beauty

Jonathan Ive, designer of the iPod, iPhone and iPad, was knighted at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday.

Asked how much beauty matters to him on the Today Programme he replied:

“Beauty is a very difficult word to define… There is incredible beauty in a very efficiently and elegantly built product. …There is beauty based on form and proportion, material and finish and colour. So I think beauty is an incredible complex concept… Sometimes you can’t actually consciously explain why you believe something is beautiful…”

Acres of newsprint have been devoted to the man and his achievements. Deservedly so when you consider that he’s changed the way many people see technology. It’s been said before: Apple products make you feel empowered you because they work intuitively. The fact that any song on an iPod is just 3 clicks away, that 18 month old children can use an iPad, or that your iPhone doesn’t even come with an instruction manual are all symptomatic of this.

For many people Apple broke the cycle of technological intimidation, where you feel stupid or frustrated as you explore by trial and error. Picking up an iPod for the first time I remember feeling pretty pleased with myself working out how to use it within 30 seconds, thumbing wildly at the clickwheel.

Describing why you like any product often comes down to such a feeling, which is hard to articulate. Design is emotive. You soon notice this when you spend time interviewing people about their product preferences. People like what they like, then rationalise why afterwards.  They give what they like the benefit of the doubt, often overlooking faults.

Don Norman’s 2002 Essay Emotion and Design: Attractive things work better articulates this notion wonderfully.  Psychology and neuroscience are now producing evidence to back up the hunches you get interviewing:

“Affect changes the operating parameters of cognition: positive affect enhances creative, breadth-first thinking… Positive affect makes people more tolerant of minor difficulties and more flexible and creative in finding solutions. Products designed for more relaxed, pleasant occasions can enhance their usability through pleasant, aesthetic design. Aesthetics matter: attractive things work better.”

It’s actually a pretty revolutionary idea. If a design makes you feel good it will work better because you are ‘on its side’. It’s also not something you can ask about directly in a market research interview.

Don describes his view of the different levels design operates in his book Emotional Design:

  • Visceral – impact, emotional connection, the feeling that ‘I want it’
  • Behavioural – usability, feeling in control
  • Reflective – what it says about you, signaling to others

This is a helpful framework for analysis. Priorities differ by person and product:

“Some people are behavioral, emphasizing the behavioral level in their choices. Some are visceral, going by appearances. Some are reflective, considering what others will think — although it is the rare person who will admit to this trait.”

Kudos to Ive for creating beauty and Norman for helping us decode it.


About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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2 Responses to Jonathan Ive and Don Norman on beauty

  1. Don Norman says:

    But to complete the loop, I worked with Jony Ive at Apple and I learned a lot about the importance of beauty and aesthetics from him. (We were in different divisions: I was at the Advanced Technology Group and he was in Industrial Design). Thanks for the nice article.


    • Simon Shaw says:

      Hi Don.

      I hadn’t made the connection, thanks for letting me know.

      I’m enjoying working my way through your essays, there’s lot’s of food for thought.

      I particularly liked the idea of ‘act first, research later’ (despite the day job). I’ve been involved in a few projects that felt like design by committee, reducing the magic. It’s about balance I guess.

      We’re pretty familiar with Norman’s Law of Product Development around here too.

      Oh – and when I get a spare fifty quid I’ll definitely be ordering a Ronnefeldt teapot.

      Best wishes, Simon.

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