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The Importance of Beauty

May 16, 2010

thinking: good design is doing good.

It’s often said that our consumer culture is shallow, that it puts too much importance on appearances and material wealth. We fully agree; too much emphasis is put on how things look instead of how things ‘are’, and when you peel away the layers of appearance you often find nothing substantial supporting those layers. But we would add this: avoiding false layers of mere appearance is only the first step: relevant and beautiful expression is still needed. Building up new ‘authentic’ layers based on something substantial and real – what we’re willing to call ‘beauty’ – is absolutely necessary for more than just the individual (or, in our line of work, the organization), but for the community as a whole.

Big words.

But smarter, more capable people than we have said the same, and in consideration of Thunder Bay’s protracted identity turmoil (yes, turmoil), we’d say that the consideration of community beauty is long overdue.

The City of Thunder Bay obviously agrees. Recently, the city has initiated the Inspire Thunder Bay Culture Plan, led by the capable and thoughtful Office for Urbanism out of Toronto. Part of the intent of this plan is to isolate Thunder Bay’s cultural identity so that a meaningful and sustainable culture strategy can be put in place. In turn, the intent of the strategy is to foster a community that puts an emphasis on genuine expressions of local culture in all senses, including fine arts, music, festivals and celebrations, public art, architecture, even civic infrastructure. In short, beauty.

This process is very similar to what another Northern Ontario city is undergoing. In November of 2009, Sudbury hosted an intense one-day workshop led by world-renowned designer (and Sudbury native) Bruce Mau. Mau’s assessment of Sudbury is sufficiently harsh but what most people already know: Sudbury is ugly. But more than that, Mau argues that Sudbury’s ugliness is driving away the very people it wants to attract and hold – the young, smart, creative, and motivated.

Mau’s solution is almost naïve in its simplicity: compete with beauty. Mau, being a designer, naturally has a bias toward beautiful things. After all, it’s his business and life’s work. But Mau’s definition of design extends well beyond dealing with the surface of things. Rather, it draws from and attends to the patterns that exist in the very core of us – our cultures, our communities, our spiritualities, our desires and dreams. As such, beauty takes on a much, much deeper significance, where beauty (via design) can solve virtually any problem. In the case of Sudbury, Mau suggests that they ought to employ beauty in all aspects of the community in order to provide those desirable types a place they like to be.

Now it’s one thing to speak to the artsies or to municipal policy wonks, since they naturally have a hand in shaping the ‘built environment’ of a community. It’s another matter entirely to put this burden on businesses and organizations, who do not necessarily consider themselves to be involved in the work of beauty, except perhaps on a purely utilitarian level: a business’ ‘brand’ and subsequent advertising needs to be attractive to its target demographic for the purpose of winning customers and, ultimately, increasing profit. Instead, ‘beauty’ or good design more often than not places a distant second to the unadorned function of advertising. The result is a common complaint: our visual landscape – from billboards, to internet, to television – is filled with annoying, invasive, and plain ugly ads.

Legendary graphic designer and partner at Pentagram, Paula Scher, argues that businesses have a vested interest in good design – in beauty – for two important reasons. First, a well designed ad is a more effective ad. It adds value to the underlying message, and adds value to the business, and provides value to the consumer. Good design is evidence to the consumer that the business respects them enough to put money and effort into making their products, advertisements, and various outward appearances meaningful and beautiful. Good design simply works better.

Usability expert Donald Norman provides us with some interesting evidence of the effect of good design on perception. He cites a study in which two ATM’s were placed side by side, user interactions were observed, and users were surveyed afterwards. Both ATMs functioned the same – the menu system, the button sequences – but one ATM was given extra attention to its aesthetics; its buttons looked and felt nicer, the display and menu was more attractive, etc. The user interaction observations and exit polls showed a uniform result: the ‘normal’ ATM reported more user errors, and the ‘nicer’ ATM was more enjoyable to use, even though they were functionally identical. This study was done in both Japan and Israel, with the same results. Good visual design – beyond function design – simply helps things work better.

The second reason Paula Scher says good design is in the interest of businesses is that it’s an easy way for businesses to contribute positively to the visual landscape of their community. In fact, some would argue – as Scher does – that this is a corporate responsibility, for businesses are as much a part of their wider community as any individual or government body. So not only does good, thoughtful design increase the value of a brand (and, let’s be honest about the goal here, its profitability), it presents a positive, hopeful message to the community and makes that community a better place to be.

Too often, however, all levels of a community tend to forgo the obvious: experts. Too often (and especially in times of financial strain), the decision to use a quicker, cheaper ‘solution’ is made, and the result screams to anyone available (in Paula Scher’s words):




People are tired of Thunder Bay being an ugly city surrounded by beautiful geography.  The culture plan process will provide some insights and perhaps motivation, and certainly there is a ground-swell in the community to start giving more attention to thoughtfully creating beauty around us. We’re very interested to see what the next few years will bring. //

7 comments on “The Importance of Beauty”

  1. Ben says:

    Great post! You’ve got my vote for helping make a kick-ass “TBay 3.0” through beautiful design. 🙂

  2. Hi Daniel,

    I was asked to contact you by my father, whom you met at the arts meeting at the Auditorium.
    With your conversation with my father you ahd mentioned that you were wanting to put together a contact listing of sorts for artists, so companies looking for us can find us. I would like to be part of that.
    If you could please contact me with more information about this project I would greatly appreciate it.


    Valarie Midgley

  3. Hey Daniel.
    Excellent! Precise and thoughtfully written. I left T. Bay after graduating from university because the city was a hole. 17 years later I returned, for a visit. To see how badly Thunder Bay had fallen made me feel ill – literally. To me, the destruction of Cornwall School on Algoma was a symbolic act of utter stupidity on the part of the city. Upon hearing plans of developing the waterfront and of various groups wanting to support the arts, I thought I would stick around. The move here has proven valuable. James Howard Kunstler made a name for himself writing two great books, ‘The Geography of Nowhere,’ and ‘Home from Nowhere.’ The latter gives excellent advice on restoring authentic dwelling spaces, “based on enduring principles of design.”

  4. daniel says:

    @Valerie, the project is called The Thunder Bay Film Experience – an online resource for producers who want to make films in our city and region. The project is being sponsored by The City of Thunder Bay, the CEDC, and the Province of Ontario, and should be live shortly.
    For anyone interested, you can submit your information for listing at that time – I’ll announce it when it’s ready.

  5. daniel says:

    @Duncan, thank you. I’ll freely admit it’s not easy making statements such as these so publicly, especially when you care very much about the area, and also when I understand that the City’s tax base has dried up to a fraction of what it was 15-20 years ago. Yet, I have a great deal of optimism about the future of Thunder Bay, and where this ‘great reset’ we’re currently experiencing will take us.

    Thanks for the reading tips – Kunstler is a familiar name, I’ll be sure to check him out!

  6. I’ve been searching for and search for specifics regarding this for fairly some time now. Thank you for the useful insight.

  7. Shaun Winters says:

    “Form follows function” has been deemed a failure on the basis that it produces cold, lifeless designs that don’t inspire positive emotion. I would argue, however, that the failed designs often attributed to “Form follows function” don’t actually take the whole phrase into account. If form was meant to be ignored entirely, the phrase would read “Function, not form”. What needs to happen to make sure that designs are functional and well formed, is precisely what the phrase implies: Make the form follow the function. Create a framework which facilitates the core functionality, then spend the time to polish the design so it flows around that functionality, and even enhances it.

    I agree about Thunder Bay. I’ve been saying for years that our downtown core areas need to work more on beautifying… that such measures will inevitably lead to more foot traffic and less crime. Customer based businesses thrive on atmosphere, even if they’re just selling junk food. People like being in comfortable/cool/trendy environments, and if the city as a whole could adopt such a feel, we’d see the culture as a whole start to evolve.