Designers Mind: Beauty in Design as a Tool for Restoration

Image: Starry night at the Cinemateca, Lisbon, Portugal

Designers Mind contributor Martina Frattura explains her recent research into the quantification of beauty, and how a new aesthetic sensibility could improve our lighting design choices.

“Beauty is the greatest power in this world”. While the writer Anatole France stated this in the 19th century, more than a hundred years later, beauty is still considered a by-product of function, while aesthetics and emotions are mystified and labeled as difficult to study. 

The global pandemic led us to experiment with how the environment affects our physiological wellbeing. At the same time, the progress of cognitive neuroscience created an opening for the scientific world to an interdisciplinary approach, called Neuroscience of Architecture, which takes into account the experiential dimension of architecture in aesthetic terms. 

So what are the aspects of the architectural experience? Vision, within the sensory segment, dominates the perception of architectural spaces and is responsible for the elaboration of the characteristics of a building in a “bottom-up” fashion. A controlled degree of complexity coupled with the ability to feel comfortable appears to induce positive reactions to our environment. In other words, beauty develops as a state of balance between curiosity and familiarity, and the degree to which these characteristics of the places we inhabit influence how we feel.

The similarities between Beauty and Light

Beauty as a visual necessity, and lighting as a means of vision become systematic factors of a unique relationship: the connection that is created between one’s self and the surrounding world. They both direct attention by creating a hierarchy of reading what we have around us and attributing value to it. Beauty and light are therefore keys to our minds’ permeability: light establishes the way we perceive space, facilitating or altering our understanding of it, while beauty helps us feel involved through the pleasantness of the space.

The degree of affinity that can be established between a person and an external element (Norman, 2005) can be influenced by the ability of lighting to convey this pleasant feeling.

Conscious and unconscious factors, visual and non-visual signals, contribute equally to the experience of emotion, and it follows that integrated design can lead users to experience emotional responses to beautiful objects, including architecture.

Transforming common beauty emblems into design cues

And where do we see beauty? The perception of beauty could be altered by education, cultural upbringing, and personal experience. For this reason, I have investigated 10 different countries, proposing to more than 160 people an empirical study on beauty as a key factor for soft charm in architecture. I chose to work with user-based research to verify the hypothesis that direct attention could be restored in the built environments through interaction with beauty. To do this, the experiment was designed to couple with environmental psychology studies, according to which nature works by lessening cognitive processes and improving the ability to concentrate.

Can we use our perception of beauty to replenish our mental energies? The results of the studies would suggest so.

Two types of data, quantitative and qualitative, were collected. The first dataset, consisting of EEG (Electroencephalogram) and GSR (Galvanic Skin Response) suggested that exposure to beauty may be associated with a decrease in attention fatigue, hence an improvement in direct attention. The second system is created from the answers of each participant to the question: “Where do you see beauty?” and it revealed four macro topics for all the people tested:

Family/partners/pets; objects of affection; landscapes; everything that is “above eye level”.

A thematic approach was chosen to analyse the data with the aim of identifying patterns that suggest the following aesthetic needs of a user in a space: feeling at ease; having an experience that is in tune with previous ones; maintaining prolonged engagement; achieving an immediate positive approach to space.

When translated into design cues, as an attempt to apply empirical aesthetics directly to the neuroscience of architecture, these global themes could help create beauty by addressing key issues such as purpose, context, and process.

Artificial lighting recalling pleasant effects

Can lighting design recall the effects of beauty? Answering this question might improve the applied lighting strategy and therefore the overall sense of wellbeing in a space, which is why I tried to correspond to the aesthetic demands raised by the qualitative research.

“Feeling at ease” – Lighting planning should consider the non-visual effects of light exposure, for example the circadian rhythm. While respecting our changing need for stimulation and relaxation, the choice of the light spectrum and exposure time should be tailored to the type of activity required.

“Previous experiences” – As a cue for positive emotions, lighting should have familiar details, again based on the end use of that space, which could be translated in colour temperatures and direction of light appropriate to the activities. The latter is of great importance, as its influence encompasses both non-visual and visual effects, allowing for a fully pleasant experience of space.

“Being engaged with the space” – The lighting should be designed and organised in such a way as to provide continuous care: the spatial transitions, as well as the dedicated areas, should have a particular light study together with a global one, allowing a reading of the space as a whole.

“Instant positive approach” – The space should be alluring, so that curiosity does its part, adding value with focal glow and play of brilliance effects.

It would therefore seem that the aesthetic value of a space depends on the fusion of various elements in a single positive impression and that the foundation of our search for beauty is based on experimentation both in variety and in coherence. 

In other words, the ability to recognise beauty depends on our need to encounter it.

Instinctively and intuitively, we proceed to discover the pleasant aspects in every environment we find ourselves in, constantly restructuring the space and giving it new meanings while approaching special values to something in particular.

The sensory and emotional response patterns may suggest the basis of our experience and despite individual differences, these patterns could help design beauty-informed lighting scenarios. Luckily, beauty and function are not that far apart.

And you, where do you see beauty?

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