Introduced by John Coates, Member, on 11 January 1999

Function and aesthetics are two aspects of design, in art, in craft and in all the things we use. In the fine and graphic arts appearance and aesthetics are in themselves the very substance of their purpose, but we also want most things, even the most utilitarian, to be pleasing to the eye. All artefacts thus lie, in effect, across a spectrum from pure art to the purely utilitarian.

On the arts, Roger Fry wrote in his classic Vision and Design:

`Arts are the expression of the imaginative life, rather than a copy of actual life.'

`It presents a life freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence.'

`Religion is also an affair of the imaginative life.'

`The moment representation is introduced, forms have an entirely new set of values.'

Fry listed the emotional elements of design as: rhythm of line; mass; space; light and shade; and colour.

Today, aesthetics have invaded everyday things as never before and, if one really looks into them, objects represent to varying degrees two kinds of opportunities and limitations, on the one hand technical and of materials as regards function and cost, and on the other aesthetic as regards `design' insofar as that part of the design of the whole is concerned with appearance. There is more agreement about the success of the utility of a thing than about the aesthetics of its appearance, and it is not surprising that art should arouse the greatest disagreement, which it does even among `experts' in that field.

The aesthetic tastes, both of designers and of the public, alter: the public may, relative to designers, be termed `designees' to reflect its more passive and receptive role, despite the power of the market.

After quoting some passages from L.A. Reid's Study in Aesthetics (1931) on the nature of the aesthetic object and the aesthetic problem raised by functional fulfilment, the speaker proposed for discussion seven factors affecting the balance between functional and aesthetic design:

1. the practical scope for aesthetic as distinct from technical design, which can be small
or negligible in things designed at the limits of performance but greater if well within them;

2. the value put upon appearance as against performance;

3. the existence of a technical plateau at the time, when more attention is given to appearance and fashionable visual style to attract buyers;

4. belief in the aesthetic value of perceived functionality;

5. a technical jump, which can bring about a quick change in design and style;

6. conservatism, or use of possessions as social symbols, or the need of a defence against personal aesthetic uncertainty, leading to `retro-design' imitating past designs;

7. acceptance of `styling' applied as a superficial pastiche.

The question of the nature of the conflict between functional and aesthetic design was raised, exemplified as design from the `inside outwards' or from the `outside inwards'.

A rich collection of aspects of this verbally somewhat elusive subject was aired in discussion between people of very varied experience and interests, some of whom had brought with them an interesting variety of objects to illustrate their points, which included: the multi-functional nature of many objects; that functionality can develop into styles having little real connection with its physical basis; that art in all its forms has never been so easily accessible as it is today but that nevertheless there is a low understanding of aesthetics and that it seems to be getting worse; that the eye has to be trained and that many schools make great efforts to do so; the value of the `golden section' in producing designs pleasing to the eye; that there is an attraction in positively non-functional looks; the power of a multitude of different kinds of associations which are aroused by objects; the influence of the social character and prosperity of the market; that some societies welcome new things whilst others have conservative tastes; the commercial use of appearance; the commercial courage needed to market a novel design; the opportunities provided by new materials and the stages by which they cause designs to change; the importance of the design of an object, particularly if large, complicated and composed of many systems, having an overall unity and therefore having an overall designer; the fallacies of `system design'; that progressive development is often needed to mature the design of a product; that the great effort that is commonly expended in development, manufacture, costing, quality and aesthetics, in putting a product on to the market is generally unrecognised.

John Coates