I’m not a big fan of the 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas, but I have to admit, when I first read Ad pulcritudenum trip requiruntur integritas, consonantia, claritas, I was right there with him. Roughly translated, he was saying beauty needs three qualities: integrity, harmony, and radiance. Integrity is the quality of standing out clearly from the background. Harmony is about how the parts relate to the whole. Radiance refers to the pleasure we feel when we experience it. And the language of beauty, as we’ve known since Aristotle, is aesthetics.
But what does aesthetics have to do with 21st-century business? Didn’t it die out with the Medici? Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder? Not so fast. If business today is about creating emotional ties with customers, then aesthetics is the superglue that binds them to your brand. When you understand integrity, you can increase strategic differentiation. When you understand harmony, you can optimize organizational synergy. When you understand radiance, you can enhance customer experience.
You probably already have an unconscious grasp of aesthetic principles, but you can double their effectiveness by employing them deliberately and skillfully.
Some modern philosophers believe that beauty is universal, connecting our senses with deep evolutionary tides. Others say it’s associative, drawing its power from ephemeral signals. My experience is that it’s both. There are shapes, sounds, scents, juxtapositions, and patterns that push our emotional buttons no matter who we are, where we live, or what we believe in. And there are others that shift with each person’s viewpoint or situation. The round proportions of a baby’s face hold appeal for all of us, but the round proportions of VW Beetle may only hold appeal to those who belong to the Beetle tribe. The person who understands both types of beauty is a powerful ally, especially when competing against a field of me-too products, ho-hum services, and business-as-usual companies.
Let’s look at a few of the principles that artists have used successfully, and see how they might apply to management. These come from my book The Designful Company.
Shape. Painters often squint at their work to separate objects from the surrounding field. By getting a good read on the edges of things, they can better focus the viewer’s attention. Perceptual psychologists call this phenomenon figure and ground. In management, figure and ground can help you separate the real issues from the red herrings. What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? Where do we draw the edges of our business? How can we separate ourselves from the competition?
Line. A line is a simple device to connect one thing with another—to lead a viewer’s eye, a listener’s ear, or a reader’s thoughts from point A to point B. It creates a sense of trajectory that suggests motion. Where is our company headed? How do our products and services connect? What does this year’s performance say about next year’s? If the connections among decisions, products, and events are not clearly delineated, your sense of aesthetics will reveal the problem before the market does.
Texture. In all forms of art, texture is used to organize complexity and add depth. The composer overlaps chords and melodies to wrap the listener in layers of sound. An artist layers brushstroke over brushstroke to create the intrigue of visual detail. The novelist weaves a spell by threading together plots, subplots, dialogue, and description. Texture is a fact of life, for better or worse, in every company. How can we thread together our businesses, processes, brands, products, features, and communications to create a tapestry instead of a train wreck? How can we organize complexity to give it resonance?
Scale. Every artist knows that large scale is the shortcut to shattering power. It’s not just whimsy that inspired sculptor Claes Oldenburg to take a wooden clothespin and scale it up to the size of a building. Picasso knew exactly what he was doing when he painted Guernica on a mural-sized canvas. When Beethoven needed to confront the huge themes of day, he scaled up the orchestra and moved the center of gravity down to the level of cello to get a fuller, darker sound. But scale can also mean small scale. How big must our business be to beat the competition and serve our customers? Where should we upscale? Where should we downscale? What are we doing today that, by increasing our investment in it, would give us a competitive edge or a decisive victory?
Proportion. The principle of proportion weighs the relationship of one element to another. Artists of all kinds grapple with this issue, but so do business leaders. It’s a question of balance. How should the various parts of our business relate to each other? When is it strategically sound to be out of balance? How do we know if we’re investing the right amounts in the right innovations? When we make a decision, how should we give weight to conflicting concerns so we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water? By developing a corporate sense of proportion, these judgments get easier.
Variety. With large-scale artworks, such as symphonies, movies, novels, buildings, and towns, it’s variety that holds people’s interest. In time-based experiences, this also implies pacing. Variety and pacing make it possible to sit though a three-hour movie without checking our watches. Variety in systems performs a different function. It gives the system enough complexity to correct itself and stay healthy. How can variety help us create a culture of perpetual innovation? How can we use it to spread our exposure to risk? How can we use pacing to keep our customers on the edge of their seats, wondering what delights we’ll prepare for them next?
Rhythm. Of course, rhythm is essential in music. But it crosses over into other art forms as well. Renaissance architect Leone Battista Alberti recommended the use of musical intervals for the pleasing design of buildings. Sony CEO Howard Stringer expects the “rhythm of innovation” to restore the company to its former glory. What kind of rhythm is right for our company? When should we release our new products? How should we change speeds to harness a good economy? A bad economy?
Depth. Shakespeare understood the market-maximizing power of depth. His plays communicated to every level of audience, from the royals sitting in the top-tier boxes to the groundlings standing in the ale-and-urine-soaked sawdust. His dialogue would shift rhythmically from high philosophy to low humor; his action would alternate between soliloquies and sword fights. Did the strategy produce profits? It seems likely, since at the end of his career he owned the biggest house in London. Yet the principle of depth can be applied with equal success to businesses and brands. Each part of the business, from the internal vision to the external brand, can operate at multiple levels of understanding. Are we communicating our mission and message to every audience? How about our product stories? Do they resonate across regions, segments, and cultures?
Harmony. Harmony is based on the principle of synergy, or how the parts work together to do more than they could do separately. In music, it might be how the notes sound together. In painting, how the colors look together. In cuisine, how the flavors taste together. In business, it’s how people work together. How can we achieve synergy among functions, departments, and divisions? How can we remove dissonance and emphasize alignment? How can we get a complex organization to execute a simple idea?
Contrast. In business, cash is king. In aesthetics, it’s contrast. Contrast gives artists a way to create drama. Big vs. small, dark vs. light, loud vs. soft, fast vs. slow, straight vs. curved, smooth vs. rough, old vs. new, and so on. It’s contrast that makes art both emotional and memorable. When a company creates vivid differentiation between itself and its competitors, it’s using the principle of contrast. Avis vs. Hertz. Mini vs. Hummer. Tom’s Natural vs. Crest. How can we increase the contrast between our brand and those of our competitors? How can we design our products and services so they stand out in a crowded marketplace? How can we make sure that our communications hook into in people’s minds like Velcro?
I could go on, but that’s another manifesto (see Metaskills). Suffice it to say that the best management decisions are also aesthetic decisions: They satisfy our deep intuitive sense of what’s right, what’s good, and what’s beautiful. Aesthetics serve as a compass to keep you from getting lost as you design the way forward.