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Last weekend I traveled to Cleveland to attend Weapons of Mass Creation Fest 7, making it my second time attending the DIY design conference. The first time I attended was 3 years ago which I left gushing with inspiration. I tried attending the last few years but just couldn’t make it happen, so when I saw an opening in my calendar this year, I jumped at the chance.

Before I talk about this years event, it’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t gushing with inspiration because of the work I had seen. The speakers that year brought a common theme to the stage—one of humility and honesty. They actually told stories of failure, and that overcoming those low points made them who they are today. Looking back at that event now, it seems even more relevant today. Almost all of us are guilty of glamorizing the lives we live via social media. Because of this it’s easy to forget that no matter how perfect someone or something may appear online, simply put, it’s not. So let me make this more relevant. As a designer at Blue Like Neon, why do I spend hours on end trying to get every pixel perfect? Does it really matter?

Well this weekend at WMC Fest 7, I am happy to report that yes—making things beautiful does indeed make a difference. This revelation came as a result of seeing one of my heroes in design, Stephan Sagmeister, in a presentation aptly titled “Why Beauty Matters”.
Obsessions make my life worse and my work better.
Type installation by Sagmeister in Amsterdam

Stephan’s journey down this road began after leaving an event in a castle in Lisbon to go to an event in a convention center in Memphis. He points out that every aspect of this castle was designed to accommodate both form and function. Conversely, the convention center in Tennessee lacked any aspect of beauty, it was built solely for function. And it looked like shit. He challenged the audience to ponder how we managed to completely lose our desire to make something beautiful.

Fortunately Sagmeister has someone to blame, Adolf Loos, a fellow Austrian who wrote a book called “Ornament & Crime” in 1908. His philosophy argued that the use of ornament within design will eventually date an object, making it obsolete. These theories were later translated by the Germans in the 1920’s, leading to the Bauhaus movement, responsible for what we know today as Modernism. It’s interesting that even today Loos’ theory has seems to have some validity to it. The design industry actually deals with this quite often. We strive to stay current in our approach, everyone wants latest look using the latest technology. But at the same time we don’t want to follow a trend too closely, because, well, it’s a trend and trends don’t last.

The Pruitt-Igoe Complex were a great example of Loos’ theory failing, where the lack of beauty ultimately led to the failure of the housing projects, which are no longer there today.

Sagmeister showed us that the lack of beauty has a major impact on our both our moods as humans as well as the way businesses perform. If you’ve been to New York City in the past 6 years, chances are you’ve visited The Highline, an abandoned rail line turned into a beautiful open air park and one of the most visited tourist attractions in New York—where a major crime has yet to be committed. Then, there was a study done by the Design Management Institute using data from the top 15 “design driven” brands in the US such as Apple, Target, Nike, Starbucks, Coca-Cola etc. These 15 brands out performed the S&P 500 by 228%, proving that putting design first has a significant effect on the success of a brand—begging the question, does function need to compromise beauty?

The Highline in New York City.
I’d argue that the answer is no, but that doesn’t mean we need to toss functionality out the window. Design can and should always be beautiful and smart. That’s the challenge we are faced with every day. A great solution isn’t only about how good something looks and it isn’t about how good something functions. It’s about how those two aspects work together. To quote Sagmeister “Beauty is at the heart of function”.
Me, Sagmeister and my friend Nick.

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