I’m a designer. I have been a designer all my life. As designers, we’re constantly focused on the beauty that surrounds us. We can often see it in things that many times others cannot. When we turn our focus to digital experiences, we still concentrate on the discovery and creation of beautiful things. But does beauty mean the same thing to everyone?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines beauty as “a quality, or aggregate of qualities, in a person or a thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.”
The Cambridge online dictionary defines it as “an attractive quality that gives pleasure to those who experience it or think about it, or a person who has this attractive quality.”
The Oxford dictionary defines it first as “a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.” It also defines it as “a combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense.”
There are many definitions of beauty, but all of them come down to this: something considered to be beautiful creates a pleasurable experience for the people engaging with it.
So why are we only focused on the beauty of the aesthetics when we’re designing digital experiences? If designing beautiful things is really about generating pleasurable experiences then we should be thinking about how beauty is experienced by everyone. But, thinking of beauty as anything but aesthetics is just not the normal mindset of most designers I know. It takes more thought, and more effort. It means getting out of our comfort zones and thinking about what beauty might be to someone else. Do you know how people without sight see beauty? They rely on their feelings, their hearing, their intellect. One gentlemen describes beauty as meaning the very simple things. Another says “beauty is an experience.” Pleasurable experiences with a website or application come from so much more that just what it looks like. The best websites and applications are simple and easy to use. They are fun and occasionally unexpected.
Jesse Hausler published a blog in early 2015 titled 7 things every designer needs to know about accessibility. In it he talks about considering accessibility as just another design constraint. He also reminds us that we’re not designing for ourselves, but for the people who use our websites. I had the opportunity to attend Jesse’s CSUN 2016 session about this same topic and several times during it he posed the question “is this really that bad?” when suggesting an alternative aesthetic that met accessibility constraints. By expanding our definition of beauty we can challenge Jesse’s question to become “is this still beautiful?”
If we’re designing something that’s truly and deeply beautiful, this question can take on many meanings:
- Does it LOOK good?
- Does it SOUND good?
- Does it FEEL good?
- Will this please the senses and exalt the mind?
- Is it beautiful?
Aesthetics will always play a significant role in any website or application development. It’s inevitable. More than 1/2 of the population can see without difficulty and rely on their sense of sight to assess beauty. But for the rest, shifting our mindset to think about other interpretations of beauty will help us create truly beautiful designs that fully meet the needs of all users. How can something feel good if it doesn’t work without a mouse? How can something sound good if no-one can understand what’s being said by their screen reader? Building accessible websites and applications shouldn’t be a design constraint. Doing so doesn’t mean the end of the beauty on the web. It means we, as designers, are truly embracing the variety of beauty that exists in the world. Close your eyes and see the beauty that surrounds you.