The philosophy of aesthetics has become a widely acknowledged part of our lives. It refers to our innate need to define what is beautiful and what is not.
In the last decade a new field of study, called neuroaesthetics, has emerged which takes the philosophy of aesthetics one step further. By understanding the role of the brain we can begin to understand the neurological basis for why we find things more beautiful than others.
I believe the design world can learn a lot from the study of neuroaesthetics.
Using neuroaesthetics in website design
The practice of neuroaesthetics can and should be extended to website design. After all, like art, design is a product of our brains.
Therefore, the look and feel of a website experience and its interactions are critical factors in how it is perceived and whether it is considered to be aesthetically pleasing.
By putting human behaviour and emotion at the heart of design and considering why we find some designs more beautiful than others, we can learn more about how the brain works during the online experience.
An understanding can then be gained in the way people interact with digital technology, the reasons they do so, how choices are made and what the influencing factors are.
Using this information, designs that incorporate neurological insight and understanding can be created to provide the best possible experience for the user.
Understanding brain concepts
The concept of neuroaesthetics can help designers to understand human behaviour and emotion during the online experience by considering how brain concepts, which are either inherited (such as colour) or acquired and generated throughout life, help people make sense of the world around them.
There is a viewpoint within neuroaesthetics that the beauty of an object resides in the brain rather than the object. I believe this perspective can be extended to website design and that beautiful design exists in our brains as an individual and unique concept.
Abstraction is one of the fundamental brain functions that allow us to perceive a very specific element of a scene or artefact. In other words it allows us to make generalisations without being influenced by another particular feature. For instance, cells have been discovered in the brain that are orientation-selective.
For example, vertically orientated cells send a nervous impulse when they see vertical lines, but don’t when they see horizontal lines. This provides a reason as to why geometry and symmetry are so important in design and why humans find such shapes aesthetically pleasing.
This demonstrates that abstraction is happening at a much lower level than has been previously considered. Simir Zeki, professor of neuroaesthetics at University College London and one of its founding fathers, explains that it represents a form of micro-consciousness – we may not actually be aware of it, but our brains are.
The way in which humans are predisposed to perceive colour before motion is another example of an inherited brain concept that we have absolutely no control over. Colour is perceived more quickly than motion by approximately 80 to 100 milliseconds. Whilst this difference may appear slight it could be massive in terms of ‘neural time’.
This means the brain perceives colour and passes it on for further higher-level cognitive processing. Colour is integral to shaping our understanding and expectation of many things. Different colours can also represent different things for different cultures.
Expressions are another example. There are most likely evolutionary reasons why facial expressions are perceived before faces. In history, recognising a face within a group (or tribe) or faces that aren’t in the group would have been very important. There will also be specific reasons for certain emotional expressions for example, sadness, happiness or disgust.
Understanding these concepts of the brain and how humans process design elements is an important factor in determining the design aesthetic and why we rate some designs as more beautiful than others.
Therefore once these factors are better understood they can be better considered in the design process.
Using neuroaesthetics to shape design for better user experience
In recent years designers have become increasingly aware of the importance of psychology in the design of digital systems and interaction.
The industry now needs to recognise the underlying brain behaviour and the relationship it has with psychology. Understanding that there is a fundamental relationship between psychology and neurology is very important as the brain drives emotions and learning, which are key factors in the online experience.
By putting human behaviour and emotion at the centre of the design process, a website can be created that will dramatically improve the user experience.
I therefore believe the design industry can prosper significantly from enriching its understanding of design by learning more about neuroaesthetics.