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Ground breaking study by Ideal Standard reveals how design and function impact our perception of beauty

  • Ideal Standard unveils findings of pioneering neurological research
  • Study finds our appreciation of beauty is subconsciously affected by a product’s functionality creating ‘aesthetic dissonance’ 
  • Data interpreted by three break-through artists to create innovative artwork

Ideal Standard, Europe’s leading bathroom brand, today reveals the results of a pioneering neuroscientific study into how the brain perceives and interprets beauty.

More specifically the research, which used a combination of EEG scans and online studies, examined the conflict the brain experiences when presented with aesthetically pleasing but functionally poor products; a phenomenon newly termed ‘aesthetic dissonance’.

  • Measuring the responses of over 1,400 individuals, findings of the research include:
  • The more beautiful we consider an object the more we anticipate that it will function well
  • Products that are initially rated as beautiful become less beautiful when their functional performance is poor

The drop in activity in the rostral prefrontal cortex (the “beauty detection area” of the brain) may have a continuously inhibiting impact in the future so that any time objects are known to function badly the perception of beauty is diminished

The research was commissioned by Ideal Standard and conducted by Mindlab, a neurological research facility based in Brighton, England. The results were analysed by neuroscientist Dr Jack Lewis; an expert in brain imaging.

“Logically there should be no connection between how beautiful we consider an object and how well that object functions,” said Dr Lewis.

“But what this study shows is that when an object we rate as beautiful turns out to perform poorly, the level of electrical activity in the part of the brain associated with aesthetic appreciation reduces.”

“So if a beautiful object lets us down, we don’t consider it as beautiful. If an ordinary looking product works well, we consider it more aesthetically pleasing.”

“We’re calling this phenomenon ‘aesthetic dissonance’,” said Dr Lewis. “It describes what happens in the brain when there is a conflict between perceptions of beauty and experience of function.”

The results have a significant impact on the design community.

“What designers have always intuitively understood - that there is an intimate relationship between the functionality of a product and our aesthetic appreciation of it - has now been established scientifically” says Dick Powell, world-renowned and award winning co-founder of leading design company Seymourpowell.

“The research will empower manufacturers and brands to challenge the aesthetic recommendations of their designers if those recommendations compromise functionality. The knowledge will drive the industry forward to create products that work just as beautifully as they look.”

Jordi Cazorla, Vice President - Commercial at Ideal Standard International, said: “At Ideal Standard we have always sought to marry together form with function. This study, for the first time, demonstrates how form and function interact in the mind of the product user.

“Commissioning the research demonstrates our continued commitment to delivering products that have style that is matched by performance, offering ‘A Beautiful Use of Space’.”

To explore the link between form and function further Ideal Standard has asked three artists to turn the functional data into beautiful pieces of art.

Swiss artist Matthias Moos used the complex quantitative data from the EEG scans data to create an animated visual translation of the brain’s activity. Alice Dunseath, an artist from the UK, made the topographical data come to life using real world imagery. Finally Ozgun Kilic from Turkey was motivated by functional beauty in nature. Inspired by butterfly wings that change colour depending on their movement, Kilic used the Theta brain activity readings from the EEG scans to create 21 ‘wing’ formations.

These artworks are displayed on Ideal Standard’s stand at ISH (Hall 3.1 Stand C11) and are available to view at www.idealstandardprojects.com

About Mindlab:
Mindlab is a neuromarketing research laboratory based in Brighton, England.

Mindlab conducted a combination of laboratory and online tests in November 2014.

Laboratory tests
Participants were connected to electroencephalography (EEG) equipment to monitor real-time brain activity, and their eye-movements were tracked.

The participants viewed five beautifully designed, functional objects and five beautifully designed, but malfunctioning objects.

The participants were then informed about the functionality of the object by reading a review.

They then viewed the object once more. Researchers looked for changes in brain activation induced by having read the review; thus they were examining how changing perceived functionality of an object alters the brain’s response to viewing the object.

Additionally they examined patterns of eye-movements and how they are affected by knowledge of functionality of the object being viewed.

By examining brain activity researchers observed that knowing about an object’s good functionality resulted in an increase in frontal activity in both the alpha and theta bands.

This indicates that participants may have thought harder while looking at these objects when knowing they function well, as well as paying more attention to them. This was not the case for the non-functional objects.

Online study 1
655 participants took part in three countries (UK, Germany and Italy). In each country, one group were shown reviews of how five beautifully designed objects (a tap, hairdryer, sink, juicer and showerhead) function poorly as a result of their design.

The second group performed the task without any knowledge of the poor functionality of the object. In this task, participants were told to respond with one key if they saw a word meaning ‘beautiful’ and with another key if they saw a word meaning ‘ugly’.

For half the test, they responded to images of the objects with the same key as the ‘beautiful’ words; and for half the test they responded to images of the objects with the same key as the ‘ugly’ words. This measured how beautiful they subconsciously thought the objects were.

Researchers compared the results of the group who were told the beautiful objects had poor functionality with those who assumed the objects worked well, to see how knowledge of functionality impacts perceptions of beauty.

People who saw the negative product reviews consistently rated the products as being less beautiful than those who saw no reviews. This suggests that awareness of functionality impacts perceptions of beauty.

Online study 2
This part of the study was carried out on a total of 798 respondents in three countries (UK, Germany and Italy). The task involved 20 objects that varied in beauty.

Respondents saw two objects at a time, side by side, and responded as quickly as possible to which of the two objects looks like it would function better.

The proportion of times an object was selected was one measure of how useful they thought the objects were (proportion selected); and the other measure was the time they took to select each object (response time in ms).

Respondents then rated each object on its beauty, and the researchers linked the beauty ratings to their responses in the functionality task. The objects represented five different product categories (taps, hairdryers, sinks, juicers and showerheads) with four examples of each.

These results suggest that perceptions of beauty influence perceptions of functionality; with more beautiful objects appearing to be more functional.