What is Beauty?

The one common request for anything that I designed was Make it beautiful. I could never make sense of this abstract request. What do they mean by beautiful? Would they call Craigslist beautiful? Because it is super beautiful if we look at the cash flow.

For years, I was wandering clueless (read frustrated). How do we define beauty? And why are we attracted to beauty? Since I had no manager to report, I could wander around and go philosophical. Agile could take a backseat. If they are relying on my taste of beauty then a mockup with crayons would go to production.

My boy playing with crayons.
Production Mockup

What is beauty? How can we define it? Why are we attracted to some things? Why some birds are so vivid in colours? Why do plants have beautiful flowers? I had to understand beauty first, not in the context of technology, but at the fundamental level.

Do we always take decisions based on beauty? (not sure how my wife selected me in that case)

Richard Prum's book The Evolution of Beauty (Pulitzer finalist) mentions that sometimes natural selection doesn’t make sense in Darwin's world. For instance, there’s a bird Club-winged manakin which evolved to so that they can sing and dance to attract females. While doing so they now have inferior wing bones and suck at flying.

Darwin's Nightmare

If we think of the second-order consequences then male offspring will be more attractive (good) but female offspring will be bad at flying and more prone to predators. This could lead to the extinction of complete species!!

Survival of the fittest is a cool motivation quote - Club-winged manakin

So next time you encounter an alpha male on the beach with guitar, he’s just a Club-winged manakin.

Bowerbird's Nest

This is not the entry point of some Maldives honeymoon suite. It's the Bowerbird. They decorate nest with all the shiny things they could find (flowers, leaves, bottle caps etc.). They even perform dance as if this was not enough to get approval of their future partner.

We can make sense of all these behaviours. There are theories concluding these traits, behaviours denote the health status. This make all such gestures as part of Survival of Fittest theory. These were just sorting parameter around health in animal kingdom.

Only issue is, Darwin disagreed with this theory. He proposed another theory called Sexual Selection, which is kind of a competition between intra species to win over females. If you think more on this theory you will reach to a conclusion that male brain will reject instantly.

Nature was running beauty competitions before it was cool.

The definition of beauty is now defined and controlled by women. Males are now trying to magnify what females find attractive. Beauty has no meaning, it's an ornamental trait, a pleasurable characteristic, which is overriding the survival theory.

A close up of the three different types of feather seen on a peacock.

It can be summarized in this way. Female had to pick a male for offspring, now she will select the one that is most unique and is getting highlighted from the crowd. It can be a singer, dancer or bird with a nice house. Any trait that pokes senrory system.

Evolution is a game of optimisations but sometimes it optimises on-axis that we were ignoring all this while.

Flowers. A beautiful creation of plants that is categorised under art. No matter on which continent you are sitting, you will appreciate their beauty. But why?

Let's rewind our clock few million years. The first pollen-producing plants (Flora MVP) were dependent on air to spread their pollen and reproduce. Then some insects came around and started eating pollen. This might have pissed the plants at first. But then they were also spreading pollen, in fact, they could cover more distance as compared to air. This sounds like an opportunity to plants. Some plants were observing all this and thought how can they attract insects to the pollen spot. They started giving different shape to leaves, some started using vibrant colours, some even started giving out scent. All this was done to attract insects from far away. In return, insects (and birds) started evolving with efficient nose, eyes so that it can relocate food. This is how flowers came into picture!

swiss landing in Zurich
Insects landing on flowers

What about Design?

The same is with beautiful design, you want to stir some emotion when someone looks at a beautiful design.  It means you want to stimulate the part of the brain that is less stimulated, which can be done with a pleasurable (or ugly) design. You want them to land on the product. When you present something new (and not just another version of material or bootstrap), they give attention to understand (managers will read this as engagement).

Now just beautiful design will not win this race alone, there's one more secret ingredient to it. But that's a topic for another time!

Anmol Saini

Anmol Saini