The Place of Product Design and Aesthetics in Consumer Research

Robert W. Veryzer, Jr., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
ABSTRACT - Product design and aesthetics research is still in its infancy even though it has periodically received attention from consumer researchers as well as researchers in other disciplines. The scope and direction of this stream of research has yet to be clearly defined, and the stream's relationship to consumer research continues to be rather vague. This paper examines the place of product design and aesthetics research in consumer research. The paper begins by discussing design and aesthetics and provides some background concerning the study of these topics. The efforts of consumer researchers in these areas and the unique suitability of the discipline of consumer research for studying product design and aesthetics are then discussed. Finally, recommendations are presented concerning the significant research questions and issues that need to be addressed if this area is to become a viable stream in consumer research.
[ to cite ]:
Robert W. Veryzer, Jr. (1995) ,"The Place of Product Design and Aesthetics in Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 641-645.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 641-645

THE PLACE OF PRODUCT DESIGN AND AESTHETICS IN CONSUMER RESEARCH

Robert W. Veryzer, Jr., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

ABSTRACT -

Product design and aesthetics research is still in its infancy even though it has periodically received attention from consumer researchers as well as researchers in other disciplines. The scope and direction of this stream of research has yet to be clearly defined, and the stream's relationship to consumer research continues to be rather vague. This paper examines the place of product design and aesthetics research in consumer research. The paper begins by discussing design and aesthetics and provides some background concerning the study of these topics. The efforts of consumer researchers in these areas and the unique suitability of the discipline of consumer research for studying product design and aesthetics are then discussed. Finally, recommendations are presented concerning the significant research questions and issues that need to be addressed if this area is to become a viable stream in consumer research.

INTRODUCTION

There is a growing recognition that product design is emerging as a key marketing element (Kotler and Rath 1984; Holbrook and Zirlin 1985; Wallendorf 1980). This is especially true of the portions of product design that involve construction for human interaction and aesthetics. Design, which refers to the organization of elements of an object, and aesthetics are inherently linked since the design or physical form of a product encompasses aesthetic aspects of the product (e.g., shape, color, texture, etc.). The importance of product design as a determinant of consumer behavior is increasing as the technology gaps between companies become smaller and companies are able to produce products that are similar with respect to features, quality, and costs (i.e., price).

Despite the growing awareness of the influence that product design can have on product preferences, surprisingly little in the way of design or aesthetic theory has been advanced that aids in our understanding of how people respond to design or how aesthetic responses are formed (Berlyne 1974, p. 5; Gorski 1987, p. 68). Disciplines such as industrial (product) design [The phrase "industrial design," which is a holdover from the days of the industrial revolution, has served to obscure the profession charges with shaping most of the products that are produced and sold. Industrial designers (e.g., Henry Dreyfuss, Raymond Loewy, etc.) are concerned with enhancing the appearance of manufactured products as well as improving their utility.] are looking to the psychological sciences to address the lack of design theory (Gorski 1987). The progress of consumer researchers in this area has been limited and sporadic. As a result of the absence of theory, there continues to be a great deal of unease when it comes to making decisions about design and managing design projects. This is particularly problematic for managers charged with transferring new technology out of the laboratory and into the market. It is at this point that design and aesthetics play a crucial role in communicating a product's identity and use to consumers.

DESIGN AND AESTHETICS

The term "design" may be used to refer to a process or to a particular (product) composition. For the development of consumer and industrial products this process typically involves collaboration among industrial (product) designers, engineers, marketing experts, scientists, technicians, as well as others (Izzi and Caplan 1972). The objective of the design process is to produce a product "design." "Design" as it is used to refer to a particular product configuration (i.e., arrangement of elements or parts) may be viewed as involving a number of important considerations. A successful (i.e., "good," optimal) design is one that performs its intended function(s) well, is economical (i.e., profitable for the manufacturer and a good value for the consumer), and is pleasant to behold. In addition, product design (i.e., configuration) plays a crucial role in communicating a product's use (i.e., function) and operating procedure to the consumer (e.g., Norman 1988). The ability of a design to communicate a product's function and use to the consumer through its form is paramount since part of the role of a product's design is to interpret technology. This facet of design is growing in importance as the products that we interact with on a daily basis are increasingly becoming more complex. Thus, from a functional or operational point of view a key design issue is how to structure a product so as to promote or maximize (product) interpretation, understanding, and use (e.g., performance, safety).

Product design (i.e., industrial design) is perhaps most associated with aesthetic considerations (Bel Geddes 1934, pp. 222-241). While aesthetic considerations (e.g., shape, symmetry, texture, etc.) usually pertain to the external surface(s) which house or protect the inner workings (e.g., mechanical or electrical components) of a product, these considerations are not entirely independent of other design concerns. For example, aesthetic considerations are influenced by (product) structure (i.e., mechanisms and components that allow the product to perform a particular function). This is especially true of designs that strive to communicate the function of a product rather than to conceal it. In such cases, many elements of a product design that are thought of as being "aesthetic" (e.g., shape) are, in fact, frequently the principal means by which the purpose and use of the object are communicated. This is particularly true today since computer chip technology has freed many products from having to assume forms determined by the larger mechanical components used in the past. Thus, aesthetic considerations in product design can be quite complex and broad in scope since aesthetics (i.e., form, configuration) often plays a central role in object perception, recognition, interpretation, understanding, and use.

Product aesthetics (i.e., design) can exert a significant influence on consumer behavior (e.g., Veryzer 1993). Enhanced product appearance can certainly be advantageous in a commercial sense, even for utilitarian products. Although product aesthetics is central to product design, it is this facet that is least well understood. Despite the relatively long duration of aesthetics study in disciplines such as philosophy, art criticism, art history, psychology, anthropology, experimental aesthetics, industrial design, (and more recently consumer research), there has been a striking inability to formulate a coherent theory with respect to the aesthetic aspect of design. Progress in this area has been inhibited by two unresolved issues that are fundamental to aesthetics research. The first issue concerns the locus of aesthetic experience. The crucial question is whether aesthetic experience emanates from the object or is generated by the perceiver of the object. This issue is apparent in a number of ongoing debates such as whether or not beauty is governed by rules and whether or not aesthetic response is subjective. A second issue concerns the nature of the aesthetic value of an object. Some aestheticians (e.g., Bullough 1912, pp. 783-785) maintain that "aesthetic objects" belong to a special class of objects consisting chiefly of works of fine art and natural phenomena (e.g., the human body, landscapes). Furthermore, it is often held that aesthetic appreciation (i.e., experience) can only take place when the object is viewed without attention to any practical or utilitarian consideration (e.g., Bullough 1912). This view, which has resulted in a "philosophy of art" definition being associated with the term "aesthetics," is divergent from the classical roots of aesthetics (e.g., Plato, The Republic) as well as the view of aestheticians who hold a wider conception of aesthetics (e.g., Berlyne 1974, p.1).

Even though design and aesthetics have been studied for quite some time, there continues to be a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity concerning them. This is due primarily to the absence of theory which encourages the impression that "good" design is a rather arbitrary affair (Finn 1990). While the personCproduct relationship which is design is a complex one, it is likely to seem less arbitrary as we learn to better identify and differentiate its essential parts and the factors that influence responses to it.

PRODUCT DESIGN AND AESTHETICS IN CONSUMER RESEARCH

Since design and aesthetics are potentially important factors in the selection of many, if not most, products, it is not surprising that consumer researchers have found them worthwhile to study. Consumer researchers have tended to focus on the aesthetic aspect of product design. This is not surprising since this is a central concern of design and most personCproduct relationships (i.e., interactions) begin with (the perception of) a product's appearance (Izzi and Caplan 1972).

Beginning with some early explorations in the mid-1970s and early 1980s (e.g., Holbrook 1980; Olson 1981; Sewall 1978; Wallendorf 1980) a "slender stream of research in consumer aesthetics" began to flow (Holbrook and Zirlin 1985, p. 2). Consumer researchers began to grapple with some of the significant questions concerning aesthetic responses such as: "What is an aesthetic response?" and "How are aesthetic responses formed?" (e.g., Holbrook 1980; Olson 1981). Much of this early work was concerned with determining what the aesthetic aspect of consumption is and how aesthetic phenomena could be researched. Consumer researchers debated the definition and scope of consumer aesthetics - with some in the field preferring to apply aesthetic experience only to so called "artistic" or "cultural products" (Holbrook 1980), while others acknowledged that virtually any product has an aesthetic component (Holbrook and Zirlin 1985; Olson 1981). Although this latter view, which is consistent with an industrial design perspective, seems to have gained general acceptance among consumer researchers, the tendencies to associate aesthetics with "art" and "emotion," to discount its systematic influence, and to discuss "aesthetic objects" are still present within the consumer research discipline.

Even though the aesthetic aspect of product design has been introduced into the field of consumer research, our understanding of the phenomenon has not advanced much beyond that which we inherited from other disciplines. There are a number of reasons that the discipline of consumer research has not made more progress in the areas of product design and aesthetics. Perhaps the most important reasons for the slow rate of progress are that the relevance of product design for consumer research and design's applicability to a broad range of products have been largely overlooked. Part of the reason for this may be due to conceptions of design and aesthetics as being essentially superficial styling or as pertaining primarily to works of art. Such views cast the influence and scope of design and aesthetics in very narrow terms. This tends to minimize design's importance (i.e., relevance to most product purchase situations) and obscure its relationship to other areas that are of interest to consumer researchers (e.g., attitude, involvement, diffusion of innovations, etc.). Many of the obstacles that have limited consumer researchers progress in the areas of design and aesthetics are the same fundamental issues that have impeded researchers in other disciplines that have studied these topics. The fundamental design issue concerns how to best configure a product. This issue is extremely complex because peoples' interactions with product designs involve multiple design considerations (e.g., function, communication/interpretation, aesthetics) that affect a number of different reactions (e.g., understanding, aesthetic response) to the product (design). Issues such as the locus of aesthetic experience and the nature of an "aesthetic object" (i.e., what constitutes an aesthetic object) continue to stir debate and cloud aesthetic research (Holbrook and Zirlin 1985). These fundamental issues must be addressed if design and aesthetics research is to become a viable stream in consumer research.

Although there are a number of obstacles that must be overcome, there is perhaps no discipline more ideally suited for the study of product design than that of consumer research. This discipline offers the unique combination of scientific research methods and a tangible research context (i.e., marketing, consumer/product focus). The consumer/product context (as opposed to an "art" context) is extremely helpful for investigating design and aesthetics questions because it allows philosophical questions to be recast in a more concrete form. This can be done because "successful" or "good" design in a marketing context is more easily defined (i.e., more objective) than it is in an "art" context. This is not to say that "good" design should be defined solely in terms of success in the marketplace or that it will always result in high sales or increased market share. Rather, this context provides a means for assessing the effects of a design because they are manifest in observable behavior (e.g., product purchase) which is not shrouded in the subtleties of "artistic appreciation." Consumer research offers a more direct, concrete context in which to investigate the influence of design and the factors that underlie peoples' responses to it (e.g., cultural influences, psychological influences, visual organization principles, etc.).

If consumer researchers are to make a genuine contribution to our understanding of design and aesthetics beyond those made by other disciplines, the unique research context that our field offers must be embraced. This means that the applied consumer/product context of consumer research must be evident in the view of design that the discipline adopts and the products on which it focuses.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CONSUMER RESEARCH

In order for design and aesthetics research to progress researchers must address the fundamental issues that have inhibited the development of theory. Moreover, consumer researchers need to develop new ways of thinking about design and aesthetics that reflect an applied consumer/product context.

It is important for consumer researchers to adopt a conceptualization of design that acknowledges the different aspects of product design (i.e., functional, communicative, and aesthetic) and the relationships and trade-offs among them. These aspects represent different roles that the design of a product can play. The roles are the different but often interrelated bases for the interaction between person and object (i.e., consumer and product). The various aspects of product design play a vital role in the interaction between consumer and product and thus may affect consumer behavior (e.g., comprehension, categorization, aesthetic response, preference, choice, use/performance, etc.).

In addition to adopting a conceptualization that reflects the various roles that design plays in a consumer behavior context, a more complete understanding of each design aspect is needed. The functional aspect of product design would seem to be relatively straight forward. This aspect of a product's design is often thought to fall almost entirely within the domain of engineering design. However, when considered in terms of the consumerCproduct interaction a broader view of the functional aspect of design emerges. For example, a screwdriver may be used to turn screws or pry things open; shoes may be worn on feet or used to hammer tacks into a wall. An object's form or configuration determines what one can use the object to do. [This view of the functional aspect of design raises some interesting questions concerning design to guard against product misuse as well as other safety issues.] While there is a certain truth to the maxim "form follows function" this saying tends to obscure the fact that function follows (i.e., is determined by) form. The form/function distinction is somewhat misleading because the form (i.e., configuration) of a product determines both how the product looks (i.e., aesthetics) and how it might be used (i.e., function).

The communicative aspect or role of design (e.g., product semantics) needs to be explicitly differentiated from other design considerations and studied. This aspect involves visual and iconic cues that help people to interpret what an object does and how it is operated or used (e.g., the environmental controls in most recent automobiles use the color red to indicate warm air and blue to indicate cool air). The ability of a product (design) to effectively communicate its function and how it may be properly operated can greatly facilitate successful personCproduct interaction. Thus, the communicative aspect of design may affect how consumers perceive and categorize a product (e.g., product class, complexity level/technological sophistication), influence their attitude toward its use (e.g., difficult to use), and shape their perception of the risks involved in purchasing the product (e.g., afraid they will never use it because it is too difficult to figure out). Design which makes a product more intelligible assists interpretation and enhances personCproduct interaction. Ultimately, the communicative aspect of a design can make a product easier to use and thereby increase the utility of the product.

Progress in the area of the aesthetic aspect of design will depend on consumer researchers' willingness to adopt (maintain) a more practical view of aesthetics than has been adopted by other disciplines (except industrial design). The view of aesthetics as pertaining only to art objects is too limited for consumer aesthetics and, as was pointed out earlier, is not completely true to the classical roots of aesthetic inquiry (e.g., Plato, The Republic). Consumer researchers should embrace a more inclusive view of aesthetic experience. An aesthetic response has been defined as a response arising from the interaction between an object's appearance (i.e., characteristics and configuration) and the perceiver of the object (Berlyne 1974; Veryzer 1993). [This definition reflects a visual orientation but may be adapted to reflect other orientations (e.g., auditory, tactile, etc.).] This definition allows for the possibility that virtually any product can be appreciated in an aesthetic sense (Berlyne 1974; Wallendorf 1980). Although this definition recognizes that all product designs involve an aesthetic component, is does not suggest that aesthetic response plays a significant role in the purchase of every product. Another feature of this definition is that it clearly acknowledges the interaction between the perceiver and the object (i.e., product) in the formation of an aesthetic response.

Consumer researchers must also address questions concerning a product's "nature" (i.e., aesthetic vs. utilitarian). Distinctions are often made between "aesthetic" and "utilitarian" objects (e.g., Holbrook 1980; Holbrook and Zirlin 1985). Clear distinctions such as these can be difficult to make because all objects have an aesthetic component in that they have a physical form or appearance that can be perceived and thus give rise to an aesthetic response (Berlyne 1974, p. 1; Holbrook and Zirlin 1985; Wallendorf 1980). Likewise, one can argue that every object, even "art" objects, may serve a utilitarian purpose or function (e.g., plays, music, novels, and movies can be used to entertain; paintings and sculpture can be used to establish a mood in a living or work space). Furthermore, distinctions concerning the "aestheticness" (i.e., aesthetic or utilitarian nature) of an object imply that aesthetic experience emanates from the object. While the aesthetic vs. utilitarian distinction may possibly be made with respect to how a particular object is viewed or used (i.e., consumed) by a particular person on a particular occasion, such a distinction is person and situation specific (i.e., dependent). For example, consider the use of "utilitarian" objects such as railroad paraphernalia (e.g., lanterns, railroad track, railroad cars, crossing gates, etc.) to decorate the interior of a restaurant. In such instances there is an inversion of a product's apparent nature from utilitarian to aesthetic because of circumstances particular to the perceiver or as in this case the situation. Thus, the aesthetic vs. utilitarian distinction is not intrinsic to an object. Although some objects may be more likely to be appreciated primarily in either an aesthetic or utilitarian sense within the context of a particular culture (i.e., situation), how the object is ultimately perceived is determined in large measure by the perceiver and the underlying factors that affect his or her perception (e.g., culture, psychological characteristics, etc.).

A more useful way of classifying products may be to focus on the aesthetic and/or utilitarian intention (i.e., the purpose or aim of the interest in the object) of the perceiver. This approach acknowledges the role of the perceiver as well as the situational factors in determining the "nature" (aesthetic or utilitarian) of an object. For example, an antique clock could potentially be appreciated for primarily aesthetic or utilitarian reasons. The degree to which it is appreciated for either one or both of these things is not fixed by the object (e.g., clock) itself but rather can vary depending on the "intention" (i.e., reason for examining the object) of the perceiver of the object on a particular occasion. Clearly, there may be factors such as culture or situation specific influences (e.g., peer group, economic circumstances) that encourage a tendency to appreciate a product in a particular manner (i.e., aesthetic or utilitarian). Thus, to some degree intention may be "fixed" (i.e., determined) by factors external to the product (e.g., in one culture a play may be a way of imparting history or values while in another culture the play may be viewed as entertainment).

Another way of looking at products involves the sentient nature of (a response to) an object. "Sentientality" refers to the degree to which the design of a product consistently promotes a particular sensation or feeling (e.g., aesthetic response) across perceivers of the product. Sentientality is concerned with the consistency of the response to the product rather than whether the response is positive or negative. Therefore, high-sentientality can refer to either a consistently positive or consistently negative (or consistently neutral) response. In the case of products exhibiting high-sentientality, it is likely that the consistent (i.e., systematic) response is due to underlying factors that consciously or unconsciously influence peoples reactions to the object (e.g., visual organization principles - unity, proportion, etc.). [See Veryzer 1993 for a discussion of the Design Principle Algorithm explanation of aesthetic response.] Products that do not foster consistent responses across perceivers can be said to exhibit low-sentientality. In such cases, responses to product design are likely to reflect primarily idiosyncratic influences (e.g., person specific experiences). Sentientality acknowledges the role of the product in forming responses to design. However, it is likely to be dependent, in part, on things such as internalized visual organization principles and prevalent aesthetic associations (i.e., association between an element or characteristic of an object and a previously encountered object or situation) that the perceiver has developed. Thus, the sentientality exhibited by a product is not necessarily intrinsic to the product itself (e.g., products that display the colors associated with a particular school may be prized in the region near the school but treated indifferently outside of that region).

FIGURE 1

PRODUCT DESIGN DISPOSITION GRID

These two dimensions (i.e., continuums), perceiver intention and product sentientality, can be combined to form a grid that can be used to "classify" products according to the perceiver's intention toward the product (i.e., aesthetic and/or utilitarian interest) and the degree to which the product fosters a systematic response when perceived. In Figure 1, the four panels of the grid represent different product "natures" or dispositions with respect to consumer response to product design. A consumer's response may reflect a utilitarian or aesthetic intention or possibly both. For products where the perceiver's current intention is utilitarian the response would involve a reaction to the product's abilities (or suitability) to perform a given task (e.g., frustration because a product is difficult to operate). For products where the perceiver's current intention involved aesthetic appreciation the reaction would be an aesthetic response. In cases where the perceiver's intention concerns both utilitarian and aesthetic appreciation both types of responses would be involved. Sentientality refers to the consistency of these "intention-based" responses. That is, the degree to which a product promotes a consistent response with respect to aesthetic- and/or utilitarian-based responses. For example, consumers may consistently appreciate the accuracy of a particular digital wristwatch in keeping time (i.e., high-sentientality of utilitarian-based intention). However, consumers may have a wide variety of reactions to the watch's appearance (i.e., low-sentientality of aesthetic-based intention). In the event forces external to the product shift, the "disposition" of the product may change (e.g., new technology could make the watch obsolete; a "back-to-basics" trend could lead consumers to view the high-tech. look of digital watches negatively).

The product design disposition grid is one approach to understanding product responses to design and the mutable nature of products. The approach acknowledges the roles of both the product and the perceiver in forming a response to a (product) design. An approach such as this would seem to offer a perspective that is less problematic with respect to the changeable nature of products than the traditional aesthetic vs. utilitarian distinction.

In addition to the areas that relate directly to the fundamental issues of design and aesthetics, there are a number of other important research questions that need to be investigated. More research is needed to identify factors that influence peoples' responses to product designs (e.g., psychological factors, culture, socio-economic factors, gender, visual organization principles, prototypicality, etc.). Another area that requires further study concerns the relationship between product "disposition" and fashion cycles. Changes in product preference patterns suggest that a disruption or shift in a product's sentientality may have occurred. A better understanding of the process by which such shifts occur could lead to a more complete understanding of fashion as it pertains to product design. The development of methods for studying the consumerCproduct interaction should also receive more attention. Ultimately, methods are needed that can guide decisions concerning product configuration. Finally, the relationships between design and other streams in consumer research need to be explored. The often subtle and unconscious influence of design and aesthetics on consumers' product perceptions may have an indirect affect on a broad range of behaviors. Design and aesthetics may be a factor in areas of interest to consumer researchers such as attitude formation, brand choice, categorization, involvement, symbolic consumption, etc.

CONCLUSION

Design is an important variable that can have a significant impact on consumers' responses to products. As such, it is a legitimate marketing interest that merits the attention of consumer researchers. The discipline of consumer research is well suited for studying product design and aesthetics because of its research methods and its applied consumer/product context. The ability to make new and meaningful contributions to our knowledge of design and aesthetics will depend on utilization of this context in order to address the issues that continue to inhibit progress in these areas. If this stream is to become viable, the ambiguities surrounding conceptions of design and aesthetics as well as the questions concerning the products suitable for study must be addressed. Although the discipline of consumer research has not rushed to investigate or embrace the study of design and aesthetics, it has in the past clearly shown that it is open to exploring areas such as these. However, the burden falls, as it should, on the researchers investigating these topics to demonstrate that design and aesthetic considerations are important and relevant to consumer research. In order to do this consumer researchers must be willing to approach design and aesthetics from their own perspective and formulate new ways of thinking about these topics that reflect the unique perspective of the consumer research discipline.

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