Is Beauty Useful?

By Ernő Rubik

My father was a mechanical engineer in Hungary. He had several patents to his name, created more than 30 airplane and glider models, and also designed a highly popular mini-car made of aluminum, a project that eventually fell victim to a Communist-planned economy. His airplanes had wings so they flew. His cars had wheels so they rolled. In the grim 1950’s behind the Iron Curtain, what did it matter if they were also beautiful?

Not so much later, in the early 1970’s, I came up with the prototype of a three-dimensional puzzle, my magic Cube. It was still a planned economy in Hungary and it was still only quantity and mass production that mattered. A cube that you could twist and turn without it falling apart was surprising, probably even fascinating. But it became the most popular toy ever and, according to some analysts, one of the best-selling products in the world. Since then, it has inspired artists, scientists, advertisers, designers, film-makers and quite a few others over and beyond its primary category of toy.

I cannot claim that I fully understand why, but I do have a few hunches.

Any new product, physical or virtual, is also necessarily a new design. However, it is far from self-evident that the resulting “phenotype” is the most perfect match of the “genotype,” i.e. the functional product-construct itself. Such evolution takes several phases of improvement, trial and error, and the feedback of disenchanted users. In the rare cases when the harmony of function and design miraculously come together, beauty is achieved.

This beauty is cathartic because the inherent contradiction of function and experience is resolved. This is what the late Steve Jobs so perfectly understood. But then why did it take Apple so many years to vindicate this (expensive) quest for beauty?  Why is design becoming increasingly important for mass-produced products that are meant for many more consumers than those with elaborate tastes (and thicker wallets)?  And why is it only in this new millennium that the importance of design is realized both in business and education?

I think these questions are partly explained by the decreasing marginal utility of sheer performance. Our computers, as well as our cars or television sets, have become so powerful that adding more gigabytes, larger Winchesters, more horsepower or more pixels is less and less significant for everyday users. The competition for the consumers’ attention and satisfaction has quickly shifted towards a richer experience where beauty is key.

Another reason is that the information flow in our interconnected world makes this competition fiercer and nearly constant. The web, furthermore, gives more weight to the acquired taste in any given category; regardless of the price tag, an object of beauty quickly becomes an object of popular desire.

At least in principle, functionality can always be improved—it is at the harmony of function and form where design can come close to perfection. A product or even an object of art is only perfect when there is nothing more to add and there is nothing to take away. This is the catharsis of an object becoming itself.

The Cube became iconic because of its counter-factual functionality: it made something possible that was seemingly impossible by cracking the inner immobility of a static solid. Just as important, however, it created a harmony of the mind, the heart and the hands in a size fit for manipulation, a task provoking cognition and colors evoking immediate emotions. It is also an object in and of itself because it sets its own challenge: a puzzle that needs no instruction manuals or elaborate rules. Anybody blessed with the basic human senses anywhere can instantly “get it.”

So far, so good. But once the relevance of design is established, what is to be done about it?  First of all, the phrase “design” is already problematic. It is painfully over-used, which blurs its meaning. For “professionals,” it refers to creative challenge, user experience, functionality and appearance. For them it’s something to work on, a present-tense verb.

Design has a rather different meaning for “laymen”: rather than an action or an activity, it’s used to describe something being cool, trendy, appealing or nice. For them it’s a finished noun or an adjective.

The task is to close the gap between these two different meanings. In order to accomplish that, we need to realize the interdisciplinary character of design and design education. In this sense, design (as a creative activity) differs somewhat from other fields, where discipline implies a certain depth of understanding in a specific context. For example, listening to a symphony is a different experience for the ordinary concert goer and the music scholar or professional.

Design, in contrast, is interdisciplinary by nature. The end goal of the design project is not merely the object, but the object in use, and quality can only be measured by the interaction of the object and its user. This quality may only be achieved by the joint understanding of the human content (psychology, perception, sometimes anatomy and even economics) and the character of the object (materials, IT, mechanics, engineering, etc).

Therefore the unity of human content, technology, science, art and creativity is at the very core of design philosophy and should also be at the center of design education. Because of the overwhelming span of creative design perspectives, design education must start from the basics: hands-on exercise with real materials; understanding dimensions of space, the workings of 3D and much more. Ideally, design education should begin as early as elementary school so that the human experience itself informs design professionals and makes them open and available to creative challenges in interdisciplinary contexts.

At its core, design is the link to nature for artificial objects. Nature does not know strict borders or barriers, it only knows transition. An understanding of the various contexts and connections and opportunities of transition is the very heart of inspiration and creativity. In order to vindicate its meaning and relevance, design must rise to this challenge.

Ernő Rubik, the Budapest-based architect and designer, is known world-wide as the creator of Rubik’s Cube.

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