Aesthetics is a fundamental aspect of product design. The visual design of a product affects the quality of consumers’ interaction with it, their usage of the product, and actually the product experience as a whole. Aesthetic appearance in particular contributes to the pleasure of viewing and utilising a product, whether it is a physical artefact or a digital application. Furthermore, visual design may play a role in cuing the function of a product and how it should be employed; an aesthetic design may deliver a message that is more accessible to users: making it more lucid, comprehensible, and pleasant to the eye. Vision, of course, is only one, though dominant, of the human senses.
Pauline Brown, an Executive-in-Residence at Columbia Business School (NYC), proposes a concept of Aesthetic Intelligence. As a contra to the much talked-about Artificial Intelligence, she labels her concept of intelligence in short “the other AI”. We may place it in-between the traditional human cognitive intelligence, with technology-based artificial intelligence being next to it, and emotional intelligence. Brown was formerly Chairman of the global luxury firm LVMH in North America. She served in executive roles at LVMH and Esthée Lauder, and previously worked as consultant at Bain & Co. During and following her years of professional and executive experience she developed her perspective on the essence and value-added of aesthetic intelligence.
Brown defines Aesthetic Intelligence as “the ability to use one’s senses to both appreciate and elicit, and recreate pleasurable experiences” (Columbia Business School, Ideas & Insights, 20 February 2020). Brown argues that aesthetics in business can unlock a lot of value, and not only for design-driven companies. At a time when consumers crave richer and more meaningful experiences, vis-à-vis the ‘stuff’ of product artefacts, companies have to shift focus from meeting functional needs to delivering delight. She taught a popular course on “The Business of Aesthetics” at Harvard Business School and also authored a book on the topic of Aesthetic Intelligence.
While the relevance and importance of aesthetics are so well accepted and appreciated, almost as native, in the fields of fashion and beauty, aesthetics receives just a cursory attention in many other product domains or industries. So it would seem that engaging the senses, visually but not only, is taken as a consideration of much lower priority (‘nice to have’) than product function, operations and finance. However, although the functionality of a product has to be ascertained first, aesthetics of its form (including shape, size, colour etc.) should not be neglected. In some domains, nonetheless, we may find that the importance and contribution of visual aesthetic appearance have been heeded by companies’ leadership. Take for example the attention and resources that late Steve Jobs dedicated to the visual design of Apple products from iMac computers to iPods, iPhones and iPads; another case in example may be vacuum cleaners and other household products of the British company Dyson, where form or visual design are paramount in product development.
Brown suggests that aesthetic intelligence is about understanding taste. It is true for goods and for services too. Beyond the quality of food per se in restaurants, for example, the restauranteur has to invest in aesthetic design of the whole environment that shapes the experience of staying in the restaurant for dining (e.g., from utensils and menu to furniture and lighting). In technology devices, it would mean thinking beyond the components and functionality of the device and towards how it would feel to consumers while using the device (e.g., as Steve Jobs thought and acted). It is definitely more difficult to excite the senses and delight with a virtual online platform that is 2D compared with an experience created in a 3D space (e.g., a music hall, a delicacy store), where you may also engage more of the human senses. One way of doing so, says Brown, is extending outside of the confinements of the virtual interface, like Airbnb did, when generating a new form of travel experience, wherever travellers arrive. A key difference between design thinking and specifically ‘aesthetic thinking’ is that whereas the former is recruited to solve problems, the latter is aimed at offering delight. Moreover, data-driven analytic thinking that has become so prevalent in recent years has to be balanced against design and especially aesthetics-driven types of thinking. (A podcast interview with Pauline Brown, Harvard Business Review Online, 19 November 2019.)
- Note: The emphasis of Aesthetic Intelligence on engaging the senses and being attune to how consumers feel corresponds well with two of the five components of Experiential Marketing (Sense, Feel, Think, Act and Relate) as conceived by Bernd Schmitt, professor of marketing and director of the Center on Global Brand Management at Columbia Business School.
Pauline Brown offers a thinking approach that promotes aesthetics in products and services, offline and online; it should be welcome by companies in many business sectors. Critically, aesthetic intelligence should entail the engagement of multiple senses where possible, in addition to the prominent visual aesthetics. Applying aesthetic intelligence should bring executives and managers closer to true drivers of consumers’ choice decisions, for designing and creating uplifting, delighful experiences.
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