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Words Kristine Harper
Illustrations Alicja Biala

In my recently published book on Aesthetic Sustainability, I have divided the durable aesthetic experience into two contrasting categories. Based on this division, I have developed an aesthetic strategy that can be used in the design process in order to implement the intended aesthetic experience and thereby provide the receiver with sustainable aesthetic nutrition. In the following, I will give a short introduction to the components of the different dimensions of the sustainable aesthetic design-experience.

The Yin Yang of Aesthetics
My immediate hypothesis, when I first started doing research on aesthetic sustainability and the durable design expression, was that the most durable expression is easily decoded, balanced and well proportioned. In addition, my assumption was that durability would be connected to a degree of “neutrality” and minimalism. Furthermore, that aesthetic sustainability is linked to basic rules regarding symmetry and harmonious compositions and colour schemes.

However, another angle on aesthetic sustainability very quickly came to my mind; could the most durable expression be so complex and challenging that the exploration of it would (nearly) never stop? Is the most aesthetically sustainable object, in other words, a thing so complex that the receiver/user is continuously challenged?

Neither approach necessarily cancels out the other. Rather, they can be described as different overall strategies for working with aesthetic sustainability; they are the yin yang, or the immanent duality of aesthetics, in the sense that they are opposites, yet complementary. Common for both approaches is that the aesthetic experience, and hereby the receiver/user is in focus. Hence, a thorough understanding of the receiver is crucial when working with strategically planning the aesthetic user-experience.

I have chosen to define the yin-yang of aesthetics as “the pleasure of the familiar” and “the pleasure of the unfamiliar.”

The Pleasure of the Familiar
Experiencing our surroundings and its artefacts as familiar and predictable contains a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure. We all have the need for comfortable, habitual experiences that can help structure our lives and make us feel “at home in the world”. The pleasure of the familiar is based on, and supports, our fundamental need for predictability and harmony. The familiar aesthetic experience is comfort boosting, and it provides us with the feeling of belonging and the satisfaction that comes with an immediate payoff, or with instantly being able to decode, understand, and use a design-object.

Working the familiar, comfort and habit boosting aesthetic experience into a design product can include:

•  Meeting the receiver’s tactile expectations; e.g. ensuring that the product feels the way it looks
•  Immanent instructions for use, meaning that the users hands can easily detect the product –
it, so to speak, talks to the user’s hands
•  Symmetry and harmonious compositions; focusing on instantaneous delight
•  Harmonious colour contrasts that the human eye instantly finds agreeable
•  Supporting – or even optimizing – the users habits and daily routines
•  Boosting the receiver’s comfort zone by supporting what he/she associates with the good life
•  Clear storytelling and transparency: keeping the statement “what you see, is what you get” in mindHarper1

The Pleasure of the Unfamiliar
While the pleasure of the familiar is all about supporting expectations and boosting the receiver’s comfort zone, the pleasure of the unfamiliar is connected to challenges and chaos. But the chaotic aesthetic experience is nonetheless a pleasurable experience. While we need some products to be instantly familiar and recognizable and to support and create structure for us, we have a need for other product-experiences to be surprising and challenging. It can be intensely satisfying and rewarding to be challenged and to experience momentarily being thrown off course – and finally, to “conquer” the chaos and reach an understanding.

The aesthetic nutrition or the durability of the pleasurable unfamiliarity is related to watching a horribly tragic, yet beautiful movie, and crying the whole way through it – and then walking out of the movie theatre, thinking: “this was the best movie ever!” A movie with cathartic qualities like these stays with you, its atmosphere lingers. The same goes for the product-experience that provides the user with the pleasure of the unfamiliar. It momentarily throws its receiver off course – but it makes a durable impression, and it has the ability to remain fascinating. Planning the pleasure of the unfamiliar generally includes prolonging the receiver’s decoding time, i.e. forcing him/her to invest time on decoding and detecting.

Working with the challenging aesthetic experience and aiming for the pleasurable unfamiliarity, can include working with:

•  Unusual combinations of materials, colours and/or shapes
•  Asymmetry, deconstruction and complexity; forcing the receivers eye into a state of overload
•  Challenging, and maybe even changing, (bad, unsustainable) habits – perhaps by questioning what it means
to be well-dressed; do you necessarily have to wash your garments after each wear?
•  Prolonging the decoding time
•  Challenging tactile expectations; e.g. the product doesn’t feel the way it looks

Integrating considerations on the aesthetic receiver-experience into the design process is a way of adding durability to the design object. You don’t get “done” with the aesthetically nourishing object; it is continuously intriguing or interesting – maybe due to its “ability” to blend in or fit with other objects, or maybe because of its complexity.


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