Aesthetic Response and the Influence of Design Principles on Product Preferences

Robert W. Veryzer, Jr., University of Florida
ABSTRACT - Although product design is increasingly being recognized by marketing practitioners and consumer researchers as an important determinant of consumer behavior, there has been relatively little investigation of the influence of aesthetic aspects of products on the preferences or evaluations formed by the perceivers of the products. This paper explores the systematic nature of aesthetic responses to products and proposes a conceptualization of aesthetic response that is based on design principles that operate as internal processing algorithms. A preliminary study that explores the proposed conceptualization is presented, and the theoretical implications of this preliminary investigation are discussed. The broad social implications of product aesthetics and design are also briefly discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Robert W. Veryzer, Jr. (1993) ,"Aesthetic Response and the Influence of Design Principles on Product Preferences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 224-228.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 224-228

AESTHETIC RESPONSE AND THE INFLUENCE OF DESIGN PRINCIPLES ON PRODUCT PREFERENCES

Robert W. Veryzer, Jr., University of Florida

[The author is indebted to J. Wesley Hutchinson, Chris Janiszewski, Richard Lutz, and S. Ratneshwar for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.]

ABSTRACT -

Although product design is increasingly being recognized by marketing practitioners and consumer researchers as an important determinant of consumer behavior, there has been relatively little investigation of the influence of aesthetic aspects of products on the preferences or evaluations formed by the perceivers of the products. This paper explores the systematic nature of aesthetic responses to products and proposes a conceptualization of aesthetic response that is based on design principles that operate as internal processing algorithms. A preliminary study that explores the proposed conceptualization is presented, and the theoretical implications of this preliminary investigation are discussed. The broad social implications of product aesthetics and design are also briefly discussed.

INTRODUCTION

A marketing variable that is gaining recognition as being a significant factor in the competitive marketplace is the aesthetic aspect of product design. As Bruce Nussbaum pointed out in Business Week (June 17, 1991, p. 62): "Recently, business has grown increasingly aware that design sells. U.-S. companies, in particular, are rediscovering that good design translates into quality products, greater market share, and heftier profits." "Competitive aesthetics" as it has been called (Time, August 27, 1990, p. 58) is gaining recognition as a strategic activity that companies can use to gain a sustainable competitive advantage (Kotler and Rath 1984).

While consumer reaction to the aesthetic aspects of products is increasingly being recognized as an important determinant of consumer behavior (Berkowitz 1987; Wallendorf 1980) there has been relatively little investigation of how this variable affects preferences for products. Although consumer researchers have started to grapple with some of the fundamental questions in this area such as: "What is an aesthetic response?"; "How are they formed?"; and "What factors influence aesthetic responses?", progress has been greatly impeded by the lack of a conceptual framework for understanding aesthetic responses (Holbrook and Zirlin 1985; Olson 1981). Olson (1981) has discussed the need for a global conceptual framework which can be used to develop the basic issues regarding consumer aesthetics and guide the design and interpretation of empirical research. Holbrook and Zirlin (1985, p. 2) have also pointed to the lack of a "sturdy conceptual foundation" as the reason that "consumer researchers have developed little if any theory to deal explicitly with the case of esthetic behavior." The purposes of this paper are to very briefly review the nature of aesthetics and aesthetic responses, propose a design principle internal processing algorithm conceptualization of aesthetic response, and present a preliminary study that examines the proposed conceptualization of aesthetic response.

BACKGROUND AND CONCEPTUALIZATION

Aesthetics and Aesthetic Response

The word "aesthetics," which is usually used in reference to either a sensitivity to the beautiful or to the branch of philosophy that provides a theory of the beautiful and of the fine arts, is derived from the Greek word "aisthetikos" which means "pertaining to sense perception." The term was first introduced in the late 1700's by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten who chose it because he wished to emphasize the experience of art as a field of concrete knowledge in which content (i.-e., knowledge) is communicated in sensory form as opposed to strict reasoning or logic (Berlyne 1974). His work was concerned with poetry and other arts and thus "aesthetics" was subsequently applied to the philosophical study of all the arts and manifestations of natural beauty. Throughout much of the work conducted in disciplines that have focused on aesthetics a "philosophy of art" definition has remained inseparably associated with the term "aesthetics." This view has resulted in some debate among consumer researchers concerning an appropriate definition of the aesthetic aspect of consumption. Some in the field prefer to apply aesthetic experience only to so called "artistic" or "cultural products" (Holbrook 1981; Olson 1981), while others acknowledge that virtually any product can be appreciated in an aesthetic sense (Holbrook 1981; Olson 1981). This latter view provides a more useful perspective for understanding the role of aesthetics/product design in consumer behavior. It reflects Berlyne's sentiment that " . . . aesthetics is certainly concerned with the arts, but it is not confined to the arts . . ." (Berlyne 1974, p. 1). This view is also inherent in the practice of industrial design (i. e., product design).

Although there does not appear to be any generally accepted definition of aesthetic response, there does seem to be some consensus that the concept involves the registering of affect or pleasure due to the conscious or unconscious influences of aspects (i. e., stimulus characteristics) of an object (Bamossy, Scammon, and Johnston 1983; Berlyne 1974). In a general sense, an aesthetic response refers to the reaction a person has to an object (e. g., product) based on his or her perception of the object (Berlyne 1974). The reaction is based on the qualities and configurality of the physical features (i. e., design) of the object (product). Even though the discussion to follow emphasizes visual aesthetic response, it is anticipated that the proposed conceptualization will be applicable to other forms of aesthetic experience as well.

The Systematic Nature of Visual Aesthetic Response

The difficulties inherent in understanding the highly complex phenomenon of aesthetic response has led many to think of it as being highly idiosyncratic and transcending analysis. The systematic nature of aesthetic response in the visual domain stems from the underlying common factors and principles upon which it is based. Both the construction and the perception of any object involves certain design elements (e. g., line, plane, color, etc.) and principles (e. g., unity, contrast, balance, proportion, etc.) (Lauer 1979). Design elements are the parts that make up an object. Design principles are essentially general rules of perception that involve the relationships between the parts of a visual display. For example, the design principle of unity refers to a congruity among the elements of a design such that they look as though they belong together or as though there is some visual connection beyond mere chance that has caused them to come together (Lauer 1979). Although the source (i. e., "nature" vs. "nurture") of design principles ( i. e., perception principles) is still open to debate, there is evidence that these principles are present very early in life and that preferences related to these principles develop over time (e. g., Bornstein, Ferdinandsen, and Gross 1981).

An indication of the role that design principles may play in the formation of aesthetic responses is provided by one of Lewicki's (1986) early studies that examined people's sensitivity to violations of a nonconsciously learned proportion. It was found that even though people cannot articulate even the most basic proportions of the human face, they are very sensitive to small violations of these proportions (Lewicki 1986). Lewicki suggests that in such cases people's judgments may depend directly on cognitive algorithms (i. e., internal processing algorithms) that they are unaware of and have no access to; he also suggests that these algorithms may generate preferences which are not available to introspection.

There are indications of cognitive algorithms that are sensitive to such things as the proportion and unity exhibited by objects. For example, the "golden section," which is a specific ratio of length to height (1.618 to 1) that is said to offer a visually pleasing proportion, has played a prominent role in art and architecture throughout history (Berlyne 1971). It provides an example of a design principle that may be nonconsciously acquired through exposure to the environment since people encounter "many instances of it, or approximations to it, in works of art or industrial artifacts" (Berlyne 1971, p. 230). Thus, the phenomenon of aesthetic response may involve the nonconscious development of design principle internal processing algorithms (design principle IPAs) as well as the nonconscious application of these design principle algorithms. Objects (products) that are consistent with a person's design principle IPAs would be expected to produce more positive affect than objects that violate a person's relevant design principle IPAs. This general hypothesis was studied in an experiment that is described in the next section.

A PRELIMINARY INVESTIGATION OF AESTHETIC RESPONSE

A preliminary study was designed and conducted in order to examine the Design Principle Algorithm explanation of aesthetic response. This study investigated the influence of design principles on aesthetic responses toward products.

Hypotheses

The general hypothesis that aesthetic responses are more favorable for objects that are consistent with design principle IPAs (e. g., proportion, unity) than they are for objects that are not consistent with these IPAs was discussed in the previous section. This general hypotheses suggests the following specific hypotheses for this study: (H1) Aesthetic responses are more favorable for products that exhibit ideal proportions (i. e., proportions known to be aesthetically pleasing) than they are for products that do not exhibit such proportionate relationships; and (H2) Aesthetic responses are more favorable for products that exhibit unity than they are for products that do not exhibit unity (i. e., disunity, lack of coherence). Furthermore, Gestalt psychologists hypothesize that all dimensions of a presentation (e. g., object, product) must be near an optimal level for an aesthetic response to be maximally positive (Kohler 1929). For this reason an interaction between proportion and unity was hypothesized: (H3)-Good proportion and unity will interact to produce aesthetic responses that are more favorable than the sum of the proportion and unity effects. Finally, a fourth hypothesis relates to people's awareness of the rules or design principle IPAs responsible for differences in their aesthetic responses to the various versions of the product stimuli. Consistent with the findings of Lewicki (1986), it is expected that few subjects will be able to identify the cues or processes responsible for differences in their aesthetic responses to stimuli, thus: (H4) Consumers are unable to articulate the relationship between the differences in proportion and unity and their aesthetic responses to products. This hypothesis was not tested in a formal sense, however, it was explored through open-ended questions and interviews and the findings concerning it are presented.

Independent Variables

In order to examine the proposed design principle algorithm explanation of aesthetic response two fundamental design principles were selected as the factors for manipulation. Proportion, which refers to the size relation of one part to another and to the whole (i. e., ratio), was operationalized as the ratio of an object's width to height. The "ideal" proportion (e. g., golden section) for each product class was determined by two design experts and pilot testing was conducted in order to determine the minimal degree by which proportion needed to be altered in order to violate the principle of proportion. This was necessary since there were considerable differences in the configurations of the product classes that were employed. The discovery of these proportions is primarily inductive within the generic object range (Berlyne 1971). Generic object range refers to the amount of variation that is allowable in an object of a particular product category or class. The other design principle, unity, refers to the organization of parts such that they interact in a mutually supportive fashion. When parts of a design do not support each other (disunity) the resulting lack of coherence distracts or interferes with the perception of the object (product). Unity was operationalized in accordance with two Gestalt laws. The law of integration of similars and adjacents (Boring 1942) states that units similar in size, shape, and color tend to combine to make better articulated forms. The Gestalt view maintains that a "good" form is well articulated and as such tends to impress itself upon the observer. A second Gestalt law that was used to define unity was the law of "good" contour or common destiny (Katz 1950). This law maintains that parts of a figure (e. g., a line) that have a common destiny tend to form units because they seem to be continuations of each other. Objects that are consistent with a person's internal processing algorithms regarding these principles would be expected to produce more positive affect than objects that violate a person's relevant design principle algorithms.

Stimuli

The stimuli were versions of color-scanned computer images of three products (microwave oven, suntan lotion bottle, and natural sound machine) drawn from different product classes. [A natural sound machine produces "soothing" sounds (e.g., rolling waves, rain, and waterfalls) in addition to performing the functions associated with clock radios.] Proportion (high or low) and unity (high or low) were manipulated concurrently on the three products resulting in four versions of each product. The high or low level of each factor was achieved by adhering to or violating the operationalized principles of proportion and unity. The proportion manipulation was achieved by altering the dimensions of the computer images of the products. [The proportions that were used for each product were as follows: microwave oven, 1.8 vs. 1.6; suntan lotion bottle, 1.7 vs. 2.1; and sound machine, 1.0 vs. .4 (Note: the proportion of the original image is listed first).] The unity manipulation was achieved by altering products in accordance with the Gestalt laws pertaining to unity concerning lines or shapes in order to decrease unity or to maintain (or increase) unity but in a manner not typical of the product class. For example, in the case of the microwave oven stimuli lines which exhibited "good contour" or "common destiny" were added in order to maintain or increase unity and lines that did not exhibit "good contour" or "common destiny" were added in order to decrease unity. The unity manipulation for the suntan lotion bottle stimuli was accomplished in a similar manner. Unity was manipulated for the sound machine stimuli by rounding some of the shapes found on the predominately square product; this resulted in disunity according to the Gestalt law of integration of similars and adjacents (Boring 1942).

Procedure

Twenty-four undergraduates at the University of Florida were tested singularly or in groups of two. Each subject was seated facing the computer screen that was used to present the stimuli and given a research booklet. Subjects were told that in an effort to determine the products with the best appearance they would be shown several versions of a product and asked to indicate how they felt each version looked. They were also given a brief product description for each type of product (i. e., product class) and informed that all of the versions of a product performed equally well. Subjects were simultaneously shown the four versions of each product on a computer screen. These stimuli were presented in two orders with a between-subjects instruction manipulation. [The instruction manipulation, which is confounded with product order, asked half of the subjects to ignore any slight computer distortion of the images that were displayed on the computer screen. This instruction was an attempt to solve an image distortion problem that had been encountered with the sound machine stimuli during pretests.] The subjects rated each version on a 9-point semantic differential scale anchored by "Dislike/Like." In addition, subjects were asked to indicate why they rated each product as they did in open-ended questions that followed the ratings tasks. Finally, each subject was interviewed in order to further assess the degree of awareness or conscious application of the design principles involved. Thus, the experiment employed a 2(proportion) x 2(unity) repeated measures design with a between-subjects instruction manipulation that was confounded with product order.

Results and Discussion

Standard ANOVAs were performed on each of the three products in order to assess the effects of instructions, order, proportion, unity and their possible interactions. The analyses indicated that an order effect was present for the suntan lotion bottle stimuli (F=4.71; p<.04) and a proportion by instruction effect was present for the natural sound machine stimuli (F=4.59; p<.04). The order effect on the mean evaluations of the sun-tan lotion bottle was controlled for by entering the "order" variable into the ANOVA model prior to testing for the main effects of proportion and unity.

The proportion by instruction interaction for the sound machine was as expected. The distortion of the sound machine images had masked the influence of the proportion manipulation in a pretest. Because of the image distortion problem that is present in the first order/instruction condition, only the data from subjects in the second order/instruction condition were used in subsequent analyses of the sound machine stimuli.

The means for this experiment are shown in Table 1. Proportion achieved moderate significance in the case of each of the three product types. The proportion manipulation was significant for the suntan lotion stimuli (F(1,22)=3.04, p<.05, eta2=.12) and marginally significant for the microwave oven stimuli (F(1,22)=1.69, p=.10, eta2=.07) and the natural sound machine stimuli (F(1,11)=1.75, p=.10, eta2=.14). These results provide some support for the proportion hypothesis (H1).

Unity reached notably higher levels of significance across the three product types. The unity manipulation was significant for the suntan lotion bottle (F(1,22)=10.50, p<.01, eta2=.32), the microwave oven (F(1,22)=97.88, p<.0001, eta2=.82), and the sound machine (F(1,11)=2.32, p<.10, eta2=.17). These results provide support for the unity hypothesis (H2).

Tests for interaction effects between proportion and unity were not significant for the suntan lotion bottle (F(1,22)=0.36) or the microwave oven F(1,22)=0.67), but were marginally significant for the sound machine (F(1,11)=1.94, p<.10,- eta2=.15). This finding may be attributable to the failure to create strong manipulations for both principles on any of the three stimuli products. Given the preliminary nature of this study, the sound machine results provide at least some encouragement regarding the interaction of proportion and unity.

Subjects attributed their ratings of the different versions of products to a variety of perceived differences - very few of which reflected an awareness or conscious appreciation of the design principles involved. When discussing how they rated the different versions, subjects mentioned such things as: "styles", "packaging", "old fashioned", "modern", "sleekness", "awkwardness", "refined", "elegant", "simple", "fullness", and "deluxe-looking". Most responses (70%) were of this nature. General terms, such as "shape" and "design", were also frequently used in statements like "I liked this design" or "I didn't like the square shapes because they looked old-fashioned".

Seven subjects (30%) gave responses that seemed to reflect a conscious awareness of design principles. These responses involved references such as: "balanced look", "out of proportion", "continuity of appearance", and "pattern of line". However, subject interviews indicted that only three subjects actually seemed to have a conscious awareness of formal design principles (one of these subjects had previously been in the architecture program). The significance of results does not change even if all seven of these subjects are removed from the analysis.

The design of this experiment provided an opportunity for the subject to become aware of the design differences in the product. All four versions of each product were shown concurrently. Subjects could have easily engaged in a serial comparison of the products in order to discover their differences. Most subjects did not appear to consciously identify key differences in the products, yet were influenced by the experimental manipulations. The fact that most respondents in this study were not able to articulate the specific violations or consistencies of the design principles that the product versions exhibited should not be over-interpreted since this study was not specifically designed to address this question. In addition, it is important to recognize that the inability to describe the relationship between design principles and aesthetic responses does not necessarily mean that people were not in some way conscious of the principles. However, the finding that people are not able to articulate the relationship between proportion and unity and their aesthetic responses is consistent with findings concerning implicit and nonconscious learning (e. g., Lewicki 1986).

An issue that was considered in the design of this study but was not addressed by it is that of prototypicality. Prototype theory maintains that people most prefer a product that conforms to the familiar or prototypical product for the product class (Loken and Ward 1990). The influence of typicality on aesthetic response is a particularly complex issue since design principles and typicality may be empirically confounded in the marketplace. In this study an attempt was made to control for prototypicality by employing products that were not the category exemplar or representative of the category prototype (i. e., product versions in the high proportion/high unity cell were not more typical than any of the other product versions that were shown). Data from another preliminary study (not reported here) that investigated whether or not prototype theory provides a better explanation of aesthetic response than the design principle algorithm explanation suggests that the effect of unity goes beyond the effect of typicality. Consistency with design principles was shown to provide a better explanation of aesthetic response than prototype theory.

TABLE 1

MEAN AESTHETIC RESPONSES TO STIMULI

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

The results of this preliminary study suggest that the Design Principle Algorithm explanation appears to offer a basis for understanding how aesthetic response operates and why it can usually be described at the conscious level only as vague preferences or feelings. Aesthetic responses were shown to be influenced by the consistency of product versions with the design principles of proportion and unity. An indication of the gestalt-like nature of aesthetic response was exhibited by the marginally significant interaction of the two design principles. The general lack of conscious awareness among subjects concerning the design principles and the influence of these principles on subjects' aesthetic responses indicate that design principles operate (often nonconsciously) as internal processing algorithms and seems to suggest that the principles can be nonconsciously acquired.

The fact that significant effects of either proportion or unity or both were observed for each of the three classes of products suggests that design principles (proportion and unity) are applicable across a diverse range of products. This implies that design principle IPAs may play an important role in many, if not most, consumer purchase decisions. Differences in the results observed across the three product types are, at least in part, attributable to differences in the strengths of the proportion and unity manipulations across product types. Even so, it is likely that there is a product-specific component to consumer aesthetic response.

The implications of this preliminary investigation for consumer research are that aesthetics/product design can have a significant systematic influence on consumer behavior and that the phenomenon of aesthetic response merits the attention of consumer researchers. The conceptualization of aesthetic response that was presented here provides a concrete foundation from which theory for consumer aesthetics may be developed. This conceptualization can also guide the design and interpretation of empirical research in the area of consumer aesthetics. By moving the study of consumer aesthetics to a higher level of abstraction this work represents an important step in "the race toward aesthetic theory building" (Holbrook and Zirlin 1985, p. 2).

This exploratory investigation indicates a need for future research in several areas in addition to a more complete investigation of the Design Principle Algorithm explanation of aesthetic response. First, research is needed to assess the impact of other design principles (e. g., symmetry, contrast, etc.) on aesthetic responses. A second area that requires further study concerns the nature vs. nurture debate and the role that biological and cultural influences play in the development of design principle IPAs. A third area for future research is the influence of prototypicality on aesthetic response. Finally, a fourth area that should be researched involves determining the degree of specificity of the design principles to product categories. For example, optimal proportions may vary somewhat by product category, while unity may be a more basic principle.

Product aesthetics/design has important social implications that extend beyond the marketer's concern for a sustainable competitive advantage and increased market share. Aesthetics/design has the capacity to influence the very quality of life itself by literally shaping the products that make up so much of the "world" in which we live. The current movement of "humanity by design" is motivated to improve the lot of humankind by better harnessing technology and better expressing it in form. Through such things as "universal design", which seeks to design products that all people including people with disabilities can use easily, to the design of attractive and socially responsible products and packages that conserve resources and minimize the impact of production on the environment, aesthetics/design provides an opportunity to enhance the quality and beauty of our lives.

This research is a first step in understanding the relationships between product design and aesthetic response. The primary aims of this preliminary study were to: (1) propose an explanation of aesthetic response that is based on consistency with internal processing algorithms that relate to the relative disposition of the parts or elements of a product (e. g., design principles); and (2) demonstrate that aesthetics can systematically influence consumers' perceptions and evaluations of products. Although much more work is needed, it is hoped that this work will provide an initial framework for theorizing about the relationship among product configuration, nonconscious processes, and aesthetic responses.

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