How do make choices when it comes to aesthetics?
September 13, 2012 5:16 AM   Subscribe

Designers of all sorts (clothes, industrial, visual, graphic ones, etc) how do you make choices when it comes to aesthetics?

I know part of choices are made because of function (form follows function, yep), but once the function part is fulfilled, how do you make the aesthetics choices of the item you're working on?

Do you have your own database somewhere in your mind in which you pick what's the most appropriate according to the project?

For example you're designing a website : how do you choose the colors / the fonts / the background etc ? Do you rely on another website you've seen and consider as visually compelling ?
I know in graphic design there are rules, like no more than two different fonts in a same page for example. But sometimes there's no rule to follow… how do you choose then?

Let's take another example : why did the Apple designer team choose to design the iPhone 4 with sharper, more angular lines than they did for the first iPhones? How did they choose ?

Or, closer to us mere mortals, how do you choose which tee shirt you'll wear with your pants? How do you know the association of such tee-shirt with such pants works?

Is it intuition? Is it re-appropriation of something you've seen before? Is it education?

There are a lot of questions in this post… I think my general question is : how do you cultivate your aesthetics sense and how do you apply it in your life / work?

Thank you in advance!
posted by niak to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Personal style is an ongoing journey, directed by constant observation, internalization of theory and practice, established standards and contemporary mores, all informed by changing collective and personal taste preferences. The only way to develop a consistent sensibility is to work at it, and keep working at it.

You can begin by cultivating aesthetic literacy. Look at art and design, as much as you can, from all different eras, cultures and traditions, and decide what you like and why you like it. See how things change over time and space. Look for connections between the history of art, culture and technology, and try to understand how they influence one another. Find out about perception, proportion, color theory, layout and type design. Pay attention to the craft and technique that goes into producing an artifact. Learn how to look, and to see.

Set yourself boundaries and limitations, and strive for the consistency of a single, unified whole. Make functional and aesthetic choices in tandem. See how technical requirements and limitations of media, materials, and resources inform how things look and feel in the overall experience. When combining things, seek to compliment or to contrast. Think about the messages your choices convey alongside the function they perform. When choosing an object or design strategy, do it in the context of what has come before it, and the tradition in which it has been produced. Understand where something comes from, and use it sympathetically. Sweat the details.

Experiment. Use your intuition and imagination, and give yourself the freedom to express yourself. Don't be afraid to take risks, and try to learn from your mistakes. Choose some design mentors and study their work. Emulate them while staying true to yourself. Look at the stylistic trends and conventions happening among your peers, and decide whether or not you want to follow them. Adopt a tribe to belong to, and learn from their aesthetic choices. If you can't find a tribe, congratulations: wear your individuality with pride, on your sleeve. Always accept constructive criticism gracefully.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 7:25 AM on September 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Illustration student who dabbles in web design, graphic design, etc.

Is it intuition? Is it re-appropriation of something you've seen before? Is it education?
Yes, sometimes (though maybe more often than I realize in a subconscious way), yes.

Try stuff. See what looks good. Ask other people who also have some artistic or design sense. Try some more stuff. You're on the right track with the database, whether its literal (I have a huge folder of bookmarks of images and resources I like) or in your head (I also just know things like "chocolate brown and mint green look nice together"). Designers will often come back to favored fonts, color palettes, layouts, shapes, etc., just like many people wear similar color combinations once they figure out a few that look good on them. These favored design elements are part of what creates a visual style associated with you, but being a designer is realizing that not everything is one-size-fits-all... you can't just throw Helvetica on everything and call it a day.

A lot of design work is very iterative. I don't know if you've ever seen a logo design process, but there will be HUNDREDS of versions, maybe with a handful of starting ideas that are easily distinguishable from each other, but most of them being very minor changes from one another - slightly different spacing between elements, slightly different color, etc.

I think also more choices than you think are made for function, even if the function is a little loosely defined... for example, AskMeFilter accomplishes two things with the color palette alone:
1. It's a branding of sorts in a site that has very few visual elements (I associate the colors more with AskMeFi than I do their logo!) - easily recognizable, to the point that people sometimes refer to it as "The Green".
2. It's easy to look at for a longer amount of time - light text on a dark-ish background, plus some sparsely used yellow-green to draw your attention to links. Clicked links are a less-saturated version that draws less attention. The colors encourage people to stick around to read that wall o' text a total stranger just wrote about their snowflake problems even more than sheer curiosity or helpfulness would alone... I wouldn't be quite as inclined to hang around here if all the text was neon blue instead and links started flashing purple when they had been visited.

When I was designing my own portfolio website, I looked at my own art, other portfolio websites I liked (mostly for navigation/layout ideas), and I thought about what I wanted to accomplish and what I wanted to say about myself. These things had to be kept in mind when choosing colors, fonts, etc. It wasn't just "well, everything is coded and is uploaded to the server, time to choose colors!" - these things are playing off of each other during the whole design process.

Hope that's helpful-ish, if a bit rambly. :S
posted by jorlyfish at 7:26 AM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of it is being interested in your field and keeping an eye out for general trends: if you're generally interested in fashion, you naturally develop your own personal taste as well as an eye for proportions, colors, etc. If you've always viewed jeans as a purely functional garment, and not really cared about how they look on people, a lot of the "rules" will make no sense. (Why are light-colored jeans unflattering? I've been wearing them for years! Etc.) There are some rules, but there's also a lot of subjectivity and "it just is" that's hard to quantify.

Most of the rest is experimentation and asking for feedback.

I find that a lot of decisions involve tweaking small things and just seeing what looks better. The awesome thing about design software is that you can make these edits on the fly and compare multiple versions side by side. Sometimes you don't have a preference, or you've been looking at the same thing too long, and that's when you call over someone else and ask for their opinion.

Commercial websites and products usually involve a ton of market research before release, like A/B testing (the fancy business version of asking someone which they like better) and focus groups. (I was once in a focus group for a website redesign. The proposed design changed their color scheme from blue to some horrid mustardy color. Mustard! As far as I know they never went with the color change.)

A lot of these decisions feel more important to the designer than to the observer: I have a habit of sending clients two or three different proofs of the same thing and asking which version they prefer. The answer is usually "yes."
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:28 AM on September 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Graphic designer here. I'm someone who makes aesthetic decisions intuitively, and I believe (in my case at least) the bulk of it comes from a natural taste level but also from just plain old experience. Sure there are "rules" but you can successfully sidestep or break them if you can do it convincingly. Another key factor would be deciding what kind of story I want to tell—bc design is communication and story-telling—and whether I think the target audience will understand the choices (and oftentimes that recognition by the target market is sub-conscious).

With regard to personal aesthetic decisions like what to wear, again, it's almost purely intuitive, with consideration to the environment or circumstances that I will be in. Again, some level of story-telling comes into play as well. My style is very eclectic but somehow it works bc my friends can see things and declare them to be "very violetk" and we often joke that once I age out of the design field ("there are no old designers!"), my second career can be personal styling/personal shopping for others.
posted by violetk at 9:56 AM on September 13, 2012

Let's take color. I started 100% clueless.

First learning experience: copying what other people do. Screenshots of websites to sample palettes, for example. From there, learning some rules about how people use color and deciding which rules appealed to me personally.

Second learning experience: training in the formalities of color. Warm, cool, color wheel, blah blah. Practice with mixing paints. Having a list of types of color relationships spelled out for me. Again, deciding which of these mixtures and relationships were pleasing to me.

Third learning experience: lots of experimenting. Making a digital drawing and changing the colors a bajillion times. More playing with paint.

Fourth learning experience: developing my own inner sensibility, my own rules. Once in a while I still consult outside inspiration, but mostly I know what I like, and I fiddle with the color till it works for me.

Perhaps it's like sex? First playing house, then sex ed, then youthful experimentation, then knowing what you like.
posted by the_blizz at 3:24 PM on September 13, 2012

I think you summed it up with...

"Do you have your own database somewhere in your mind in which you pick what's the most appropriate according to the project?"

Yes, definitely. This starts with 3-5 years of art school when you become consciously aware that you are decoding things visually every day. Then you continue to populate this database every day with both things that you have decoded yourself and also the opinions of others.

This is a really interesting topic, it's also sort of an open ended discussion.
posted by stackhaus23 at 12:15 PM on September 18, 2012

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