The phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (BIITEOTB) is often misused to justify poor design – situations where somebody tries to justify poor taste by judging according to their individual preference. The actual meaning of the phrase goes further than individual taste and shared understandings of aesthetics.
One way of interpreting the phrase BIITEOTB is quite simply that an object is not innately beautiful in of itself – it is that perception of that object by a viewer that makes it beautiful or not. In a similar vein Roland Barthes proclaimed that the author is dead meaning that the reader/viewer decides on the meaning and by extension makes aesthetic judgments of beauty. The creator of an object does not make imbue an object with beauty but the creator can make an object that is likely to be perceived as beautiful.
Another way of looking at BIITEOTB is that there is individual judgment involved. Humans are not actually as different as we might suppose because many of our aesthetic experiences are very similar to other humans. Because of it is useful to divide the eye into three aesthetic judgments. These are universal aesthetics, cultural aesthetics and individual aesthetics.
Universal aesthetics are generally shared by all other human beings (see an Absolutist Theory of Beauty PDF). For example: humans are commonly drawn to symmetry and order. There is fMRI research that scanned the brains of people who looked at images and ranked them for beauty. The images with the highest beauty rankings were the ones that cause the least brain activity. This suggests that the roots of universal aesthetics are in things that are “easy on the eye.” Interestingly the Chinese word for ugly is难看(pinyin: nankan) which literally translates as “difficult to see”. Evolutionary research suggests that our love of aesthetics is rooted in judging healthy partners to create strong offspring.
Cultural aesthetics are aesthetic tastes that are shared amongst sub-sections of the human population. It’s unclear whether these are nature or nurture – that is in the DNA or learned. More likely these are learned preferences and things that a person likes because they have become used to them and have strong emotional associations with them. Cultural aesthetics encompasses things from modern tribes such as music genres or strong brands. Most target audience research in graphic design tries to uncover the cultural aesthetics of our audience.
Individual aesthetics are where individual taste comes into the equation. The effect of this is probably much smaller in normally well adjusted humans than the effect of universal and cultural aesthetics. One situation where individual aesthetics becomes powerful is in the faces of family. Repeated viewings of family faces with strong emotional ties creates a familiarity that resonates deeply within an individual and overrides the universal aesthetic. Again there is a survival evolutionary basis for favoring family over others.
Graphic Designers will study universal aesthetics and master these. Much of the teaching in typography, design principles, grid systems and colour theory are based on universal aesthetics. Further education of the designer has them explore cultural aesthetics so that they can better communicate to their target audiences. Graphic designers usually leave exploration of individual aesthetics to the fine artists, the fashion designers, the illustrators and photographers.
So next time somebody says “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” remember that eye has aesthetic judgments that are universal, cultural and individual.