What is beauty? Well, beauty is a six-letter word, and a loaded one, especially when it comes to working in the creative industries, but, while there’s the old adage that it’s ‘in the eye of the beholder’, some argue that what is (and isn’t beautiful) is far from subjective.
The Oxford Dictionary defines beauty as “A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.” But we all know it’s more than that: we often say a person is beautiful, or that they have a beautiful soul.
Beauty, then, is nebulous – it isn’t dependent on certain aesthetic qualities, but has a deeper resonance that’s more about feeling than composition or colour. If it were that simple, we’d all make things that were universally agreed to be beautiful.
What is beauty?
Maria-Alina Asavei is a lecturer and postdoctoral researcher in Russian and East European Department at the Institute of International Studies at Charles University in Prague and an independent curator of contemporary art. “We often fail to make clear what we mean by ‘beauty’, even if we use this word quite frequently, in all kinds of occasions, related to art or not,” she writes in the essay Beauty and Critical Art: is beauty at odds with critical–political engagement?.
Asavei continues: “When we appreciate that something has beauty, we implicitly accept that X is a source of positive aesthetic value or positive aesthetic appreciation. In the history of philosophical aesthetics, there are many theories and definitions of beauty. Despite differences, most of these theories connect the experience of the beautiful with a certain type of pleasure and enjoyment.”
Yet many would argue that by our very nature, there’s a certain universal set of indices that inform beauty. Alan Moore, a former designer and typographer who worked under the mentorship of letterpress guru Alan Fletcher and in roles including head of art at Publicis in London, now focuses his entire career on beauty in design, and its role in successful businesses.
However, his take on beauty isn’t about what something looks like: he often speaks about it in terms of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Dirac’s theorem, spirituality and the laws of nature. “At an atomic level, everything is connected; they dance and are attracted to one another at a nuclear level. The law of nature seeks things to be made of symmetry and harmony, and even in opposites they’re complementary: we have night and day, up and down. We’re all made of the same stuff molecularly, so we intuit beauty – we know it to be the life-enhancing force.”
As such, Moore sees beauty not just as symmetry, but as regeneration: the first law of thermodynamics, also known as Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. This is intrinsically related to good design. “It’s about the idea of bringing good into the world and regeneration,” Moore says. “People really connect to the idea of beautiful people because it relates to values, it relates to ethics. You have to think about if someone asked you as a designer, ‘Is that the most beautiful decision we could make?’ If you see that, then as a designer, your duty is to only bring good things into the world.”