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A detail of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Da Vinci’s paintings are typically composed around the Golden Mean.

Science Explains Why Humans Covet Beautiful Things

More and more, research is piling up to explain what we already knew: People love beautiful things.

Why are credit cards, televisions, books, and iPods shaped the same way? They all form a "golden rectangle"—a phenomenon we’ve recognized for millennia. But why are we so obsessed with these rectangles in our media? In 2009, Duke University researchers discovered a practical explanation. Humans can process information inside these rectangles, like text in a paragraph, very efficiently. In this case, we’re drawn to a lighter cognitive load. We like books because they actually look easy to read.

It’s just one of many examples given by Lance Hosey from The New York Times in a recent column. Through a series of research vignettes, he presents beautiful design as an evolutionary imperative beyond this caveman ideal of needing sharper rocks to better kill mastodons. I especially enjoyed this explanation of why we may love Jackson Pollock:

Certain patterns also have universal appeal. Natural fractals—irregular, self-similar geometry—occur virtually everywhere in nature: in coastlines and riverways, in snowflakes and leaf veins, even in our own lungs. In recent years, physicists have found that people invariably prefer a certain mathematical density of fractals—not too thick, not too sparse. The theory is that this particular pattern echoes the shapes of trees, specifically the acacia, on the African savanna, the place stored in our genetic memory from the cradle of the human race. To paraphrase one biologist, beauty is in the genes of the beholder—home is where the genome is.

LIFE magazine named Jackson Pollock "the greatest living painter in the United States" in 1949, when he was creating canvases now known to conform to the optimal fractal density (about 1.3 on a scale of 1 to 2 from void to solid). Could Pollock’s late paintings result from his lifelong effort to excavate an image buried in all of our brains?

We respond so dramatically to this pattern that it can reduce stress levels by as much as 60 percent—just by being in our field of vision.

But the most wonderfully complex thing about all the implications behind Hosey’s piece is that there’s no one driving scientific principle behind it all—other than that within many so-called beautiful designs, there’s some hidden positive correlate for the human experience. So all we’re left learning, really, is that our hands and eyes are drawn to these pretty objects for the same reason our tongues are drawn to sweets and fats. At some level, our taste actually influences our survival.

Read more here.

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  • Moi

    iPads, books and credit cards are not really golden rectangles, they're just rectangles.


  • roitsch

    For me this text basically explains perfectly one thing: design is not just random beautification but is based on science and can be fulfilled with a proven record of success. Especially this quote: "We think of great design as art, not science, a mysterious gift from the gods, not something that results just from diligent and informed study. But if every designer understood more about the mathematics of attraction, the mechanics of affection, all design — from houses to cellphones to offices and cars — could both look good and be good for you." 
    Here is another great interview about that topic:
    "Sometimes if I just explain to people — even a group of designers — how the hand works, it’s interesting how many designers could not tell you. Certain things that should be basic common knowledge to successful design are just not taught, whether it’s perception or psychology or physiology."

  • Steve Pender

    Modern art has to be the biggest in-joke in history. Jackson Pollock creates essentially static. We all hate static like the plague when it's on a TV, on the radio, or anywhere else than a canvas surface, in which case its creator becomes "best living artist" by a major magazine. It's a bit like a litmus test of who thinks and who follows. This type of art is a square bike wheel. It has no analogue to other fields of design. Its design mentality would lead to failure in any other pursuit. I don't wish to censor any art, but I will tirelessly ridicule those artists who attempt to waste people's attention on childish splatters of paint.

  • Shannon

    You obviously have no understanding of what Modern art actually is and too much time on your hands if you wish to "tirelessly ridicule those artists"...