In his best seller Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the veracity of the decisions we make quickly, arguing that millions of years of evolution have given us the perceptive skills we need to make instant choices, often without all the facts. One of his examples is a story about a museum that spent an enormous amount of money on a well-tested and professionally authenticated ancient statue only to have an expert question the providence of the piece after one quick glance.
Being a designer, I found that discussion extremely interesting because I often wonder the same thing. Is surface design — and the decisions made because of it — a shallow criteria or is it a true harbinger of much deeper meaning?
Nature seems to side with the second argument. The black/red/yellow pattern of a coral snake, for example, broadcasts the viper's poisonous abilities, hence the nursery rhyme, “red on yellow, kill a fellow, red on black, friend of Jack.” Thorns, fangs, and claws all look dangerous and remind us to stay away. And evolution has graced some less dangerous creatures, such as the small emperor moth, with features designed to make them look much more formidable than they actually are — in the moth's case, spots across delicate wings that resemble the eyes of the fiercest owl.
Politics, too, thrives on decisions made based on surface image. The 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy is an oft-quoted example. While most analysts say that radio listeners thought Nixon won the debate, Kennedy was declared the winner based on TV viewers. JFK's youthful, vigorous, and handsome visage trumped the old school Nixon who was described as tired, puffy, and unshaven.
Regardless of their political affiliation, every president since Ronald Reagan has been tall and good-looking, including the two candidates for the current presidential race. And almost a century ago, the man widely declared to be one of the worst presidents in history, Warren Harding, was said to have won the race because he “looked presidential.”
Packaging has always been one of the key assets of marketing too, and up until recently the belief was that 80% of the purchase decision was made in-store when the consumer actually saw the product. Today, when more and more purchase decisions are made online, sites that are visually oriented and aesthetically pleasing outscore and outsell sites that are not.
Computerization has also made surface appeal more important. Because of modern design and manufacturing techniques, virtually all products function they way they should. Remember the days when TVs used to break? Picture tubes would blow, the gears inside dials (remember dials?) would strip, remote controls would fail. Today, thanks to computer design and digital signals, TVs work like they're supposed to and consumers don't feel the need to replace them very often. In order to stimulate sales, manufacturers had to create new features – flat screens and 3D TV – just to get their customers back into the stores.
Cars from Korea's Kia used to be considered cheap and tinny transportation. But just as with televisions, computer-aided design and manufacturing changed the abilities and durability of the cars, bringing them into line with other, much more expensive automobiles. Kia telegraphed these changes with cutting-edge design and today their beautiful Sonata, Optima, and Rio are rocketing up the sales charts.
But the question remains. Are visuals reliable indicators of quality or just shallow eyewash? Would Ron Paul be a more successful candidate if he looked more like Mitt Romney instead of a ventriloquist's dummy? Would Romney and Barack Obama have been as successful as they've been without their movie star looks? Would Apple have become the most valuable technology company on the planet without its steadfast commitment to design?
Miami, Milan, and Madrid have all built their businesses based on aesthetics. Audi, Kia, and Infiniti, too. So have Apple, Bose, and Bang & Olufsen. But does that mean their product offerings are better than the rest?
That's a question deserving of a formidable debate. What I do know is that besides being an enjoyable end in and of itself, good design is a valuable business asset. Companies that invest in aesthetics and produce products and services that look and function better than the rest see the difference on their balance sheets. And consumers, often harried and time-starved, make purchase choices based on the snap decisions that have been honed by millions of years of evolutionary development.