Working in a more visually oriented field, it’s hard not to hear the word “beautiful”. Even when I’m not hearing the actual word, I’m hearing interpretations of it. Whether it’s “moving” or “amazing”, “love it! (or hate it!)” or simply “hmmm”, these phrases are verbalizations of an internal dialogue about what we value as beauty. But what is beauty? And how does it related to logos?
What first got me thinking of this was a very interesting book by Nancy Etcoff titled Survival of the Prettiest – The Science of Beauty. Armed with an M.Ed. from Harvard, a Ph.D. in psychology from Boston University and a post-doc fellowship in brain and cognitive sciences from MIT, Etcoff seems to be well positioned to dig a little deeper into what is usually a glancing topic.
At the core, her position is that beauty is a biological adaptation – that beauty is “a universal part of human experience, and that it provides pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions that help ensure the survival of our genes.” Her take is that we are “hard-wired” to look for certain things that we associate with physical beauty like hair, skin, curves and symmetry. But isn’t it subjective?
According to Etcoff, the surprising answer is “no”. While the entire book together creates a compelling case, a couple examples stand out. She sites a 1960 London case where a newspaper published twelve young women’s faces and asked for a rating on prettiness. After four thousand responses from eight to eighty, the rankings were “remarkably consistent”. Another study in the U.S. with 10,000 respondents showed the same thing. And even smaller more controlled studies in psychologists’ laboratories confirmed what the other studies were already showing.
The surprising thing here was that even when including isolated tribes like the Hiwi Indians of Venezuela and the Ache Indians of Paraguay, both groups which lived as hunter gatherers until the 1960s with no Western influence, there was significant agreement about what was beautiful, though there was stronger agreement for faces of the same group.
But when these groups are looking at things that they agree are beautiful, what trait are they actually identifying?
For that, she gives us an interesting set of investigations by Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin. Evidently, he was the inventor of fingerprinting, statistical correlations and an ultrasonic whistle (yes, the Galton whistle). But another study of his that surprisingly held some insightful clues about beauty was one that involved making composite photographs of criminals in England.
What he found was that when he created a composite, though fuzzy, image made up all of the images it turned out to be better looking. While he did not go on to continue these studies, new research by current scientists merging hundreds of images have shown the same thing – faces that are averaged tend to more attractive than individual faces. Two to four faces lead to small improvements whereas 32 faces make the image “much more attractive”.
As you might have guessed, the underlying principle here is averages. Lots of different images tend to make up for small differences that we have - often between the right and left side of our face. And averaging in the end improves things being equal on both sides making the face appear more symmetrical. So in the end, what we find is that a key marker for beauty is symmetry. And this might make sense, she states, since biological studies have found that asymmetrical animals have lower survival and growth rates and diminished reproduction. In a sense, symmetry gives kind of biological green light.
While there is a lot more in the book, a major takeaway was that interpretations of beauty are partly biological and connected to internal appreciations for symmetry. This does not explain all of beauty, but was interesting in that it took a biological approach as opposed to a more often found sociological one.
But what about logos, then? Can we determine a beautiful logo?
We could kind of make a small step from the above case and say that if symmetry is valued positively in personal beauty, then it is probably positively viewed in non-personal, but visual objects, as well. Interestingly enough, a recent short article in the Harvard Business Review (click the link to see which companies at the top were perceived as ethical) looked at exactly that. Using the logos as a proxy for visual beauty Niels van Quaquebeke and Steffen Geisner of the Rotterdam School of Management showed 100 logos of Global 500 companies to two groups.
The first group was asked to rate the logo on attractiveness and symmetry while the second group was asked to judge if the company behaved ethically or not. The interesting finding was that people associated symmetrical logos with more ethical or socially responsible behavior. Given our assumed set of biological tendencies, this kind of makes sense. Symmetry would somehow just feel better which could be interpreted as ethical since that was the positive value factor.
While I think the research is interesting, I don’t it warrants any specific methodologies about creating “beautiful” design. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main one is that design is about specific message and audience. Target is for everybody and their logo reflects that – perfect symmetry. On the other hand, Apple isn’t (or traditionally hasn't been). It’s 1984 commercial, it’s “Think different.” campaign, all point towards a non-traditional consumer with their own rules for beauty. Both are equally successful (which could be read beautiful).
In the end, I think the interesting point here is not whether to make things asymmetrical or symmetrical, but to simply be cognizant of how biologically-driven inclinations affect perception and decision making.