Aristetolian Aesthetics

Sep 13, 2009

When I took a course on information design last year at RISD, my professor, Krzysztof Lenk, introduced in the first class the idea of Aristotelian aesthetics. He described this notion as the ability of good design to evoke intense emotion in its audience. He said this reaction should not be caused by the design of embellishments but by good design of the information itself. Good information design both structures the information itself in a way that is easily comprehended and, perhaps more crucially, has a singular thesis. When these two principles are achieved, we can achieve a beauty in the Aristotelian sense.

I have often recalled this one moment in class and I think I have finally distilled how intricate this one bit of advice is. Intrigued by this discussion, I went to try and fully understand what Aristotle’s philosophy of design was. Unfortunately, a initial google search brought nothing up on the matter – Aristotle never did have a stance on visual design. After a little bit of research, the closest literature I could find on the matter was an essay that Aristotle wrote on literary aesthetics.

His essay Poetics was the first essay written on literary theory. In it, he defines art – in all its modes, be it song, dance, or poetry – as imitations of nature. In terms of poetry, he distinguishes between Comedies, Tragedies, and Epics. In this essay, he focuses on the mechanics of a tragedy. One particular feature that struck me in the context of design was the idea of Catharsis. Catharsis is the idea of an intense release of emotion or an emotional purging that should result after an audience views a tragedy. Likely, this was what my professor had been referring to and it was certainly an interesting stretch to view this in the context of the visual design of information.

To Aristotle, a tragedy composed of six parts: plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song. Because tragedies are the imitations of the actions of men and not men themselves, the plot was considered “the soul of a tragedy.” Characters, therefore, came second to plot. This parallel can again be drawn to information design. A good design tells a story. The design of the data (or characters) is important but it is secondary to the design of the story the information tells. In this sense, information design at its best has a singular thesis or story; at its worst, it is a data dump with too many stories to comprehend or no story at all.

Here is another interesting quote from the essay:

Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long.

He uses this metaphor to understand the organization and magnitude of a plot but, again, there is a direct corollary to design. Design and detail of the information is important but it one has to be wary of that including unimportant details of the information can take away from the overall message of the picture. Removing too many details, however, can make the design boring and unconvincing.

How well all of this actually applies to all types of information design is hard to say but this was certainly an interesting and different perspective on design implying that designers should not only have a creative eye but a creative tongue as well. A good designer, then, can learn a lot from the art of good storytelling.