How are Beauty and Sustainability related? We might think that they have nothing to do with each other, and that they don't need each other. Or even that they are incompatible. It has often been said that "sustainable" is "ugly" or "shabby". And "beautiful" has been associated with the superficial, the unnecessary, and unsustainable luxury. With this story we intend to provide a different view on all this.
Design has often been understood as an activity that creates beauty, that beautifies the world. Let's see how Design, nowadays, is not only in charge of creating products or graphics, but also services and broader experiences, business, and even politics. And in all of them there can be Beauty.
Let's start at the product level, whether physical (e.g. furniture, toys, or electronic devices) or digital (e.g. websites or mobile apps). In product design, there has always been a debate between functionality and beauty, as if they were opposites. Now, we are including another variable in the debate: sustainability. The truth is that beauty has a lot to do with emotions, with the emotional connection that people have with things. And this is related to two aspects that we talk about below.
First, we want to talk about the relationship between beauty and a good user experience with a product. Azur González explains in 'Design, emotions and beauty' how "a product that establishes a positive connection produces a cognitive high that makes it easier to use". Thus, creating beautiful interfaces could help, for example, to reduce the digital divide suffered by the elderly. But it can also facilitate accessibility for others. The issue of digital accessibility is already in itself an issue related to sustainability and positive impact. First of all, it is a social impact. But it also has to do with environmental impact, as an accessible digital interface contributes to lower energy consumption. About this, you can read more in our story on Sustainable Web Design.
If we talk about physical products, a good example is the wheelchair designed by LAYER. This product offers the best user experience: the ergonomics of its design is adapted to the person who is going to use it, it is light and flexible. In addition, its elegant aesthetics help to eliminate the social stigma attached to wheelchairs, which contributes to social inclusion. One person said that this was the only wheelchair he felt comfortable using in a nightclub.
We could take these concepts, not only to products, but to the spaces and environments in which we live. It is no coincidence that the motto of the New European Bauhaus is "beautiful, sustainable, together". It is understood that "beauty" is part of an experience in the environment in which we live that is of quality, pleasurable, and increases people's well-being.
Secondly, we want to talk about the relationship between beauty and durability. We know that durability is key to sustainability: if a product lasts, and continues to provide value for a long time, it makes it more sustainable. And this also has to do with that emotional connection we were talking about.
The beauty of a product creates a stronger emotional connection with it, making it more difficult to part with it. It makes people want to take care of it and feel a sense of responsibility for the product. People who use the LAYER-designed wheelchair will probably take care of it for the rest of their lives.
We are moving away from the concept of superficial beauty, intended only to "decorate" a product, or make it look like something it is not. We are talking about authentic beauty, which highlights the best qualities of a product and makes people want to relate to that product. This does not mean that objects should not have any ornamentation. What is important is that the aesthetics of the object highlights the qualities that are important to the people who relate to it. We can speak of a "meaningful aesthetic".
Architect Joanna Laajisto talks about "simple and classic elements that survive the passage of time", in the article "The aesthetics of sustainability". Her pieces and her spaces are an example of these elements that do not go out of fashion, and that people want to keep for as long as possible. Another example is the basket lamp by Miguel Milá (in the cover photo). All these products have in common an aesthetic that adapts to different times and places, and that makes them last for decades.
What about digital design? It's the same thing. The design of a digital brand, or web design, if done with an authentic aesthetic will be more sustainable. An aesthetic and an image based on a rigorous work of defining the values and purpose of the brand, and not on passing trends. This will make users of the brand have a lasting emotional connection with it, avoiding constant redesigns with the cost involved.
"The effort to create lasting beauty depends not on style but on truth. Beauty is what gives things their immortality" (Alan Moore).
Just as we talk about beauty contributing to sustainability, we think that sustainability and ethics also contribute to beauty. Beauty, not as something superficial that is added later, but as something that can only be fully achieved if everything we do is good. It is a kind of "moral beauty". Sometimes this moral beauty appears in our everyday expressions: when we believe that what someone did 'is wrong', we say that 'it is ugly'. We are currently in a paradigm shift. People increasingly value this deep beauty, which is linked to things being good for us and for the planet. In relation to this, Ecio Manzini speaks of "a new beauty in things".
We claim the aesthetic value as a consequence of other values in the project. Aesthetics, in a project, is the visible result of other values present in it. It is the result of a selection of materials based on circular and local economy. It is the result of adapting a product to be inclusive and accessible to everyone. It is the result of taking into account, in the design process itself, the interests and needs of many people.
This is an idea applied by projects and companies such as MO de Movimiento, which offers the world real, not empty, beauty. The sensations they convey to their audiences are based on ethical decisions and a real commitment to sustainability. Their communication and aesthetics are authentic and are not based on Greenwashing or Socialwashing.
Another example is the project Diseñando Lo Por Venir, organized by IDECART for the World Design Capital Valencia 2022. Co-design processes were developed with various groups, from a perspective of social inclusion and health. These processes resulted in a series of completely different products, as they were based on the needs and concerns of each group that participated. It is not only the products, but also the participatory process that helped each group to find paths towards social inclusion. Undoubtedly, a beautiful and attractive project, which excites, not only for the results, but for the whole process and its purpose.
This beauty is present in the entire project, including the business, and not just in the final products. What makes these projects more beautiful is that they are authentic and have a real positive impact on people and the planet.
If we want sustainability to become the norm, it must not be something boring or ugly. It must be something attractive, something that excites, and that excites people to follow that path. And for this, we do not only design objects, but new cultures and ways of relating to each other.
When we talk about Design for Social Innovation, or disciplines such as Service Design, we are actually talking about designing relationships. We no longer design objects, but we shape platforms, places, organizations... in which a series of relationships and interactions take place. We must design these services and organizations so that they adapt to the needs of human beings and the limits of the planet. They must favor a good user experience for the people who interact with them. A good experience is a beautiful, frictionless, delightful experience.
In fact, at Monnou, our design process often does not lead to the materialization of a product. Sometimes it does: we define a strategy for an organization, and from it, we design a product. For example, a new website, or a new packaging. But other times, the strategy we define leads to the design of something intangible. For example, a new service that makes it easier for users to reuse a product. And in this, we also look for beauty.
We believe that the definition of 'design' is changing, and must change. As Monchaux says in the MIT Technology Review, it's about recapturing the original meaning of the term 'design'. "Not just the search for a more beautiful form, but the shaping of a more beautiful and sustainable world."