The role of aesthetics

A University of Exeter (UK) study reveals that infants are born with inherent preferences that give them direction and help them to make sense of their new environment. Newborns were shown images of two kinds of faces side by side: attractive ones and less attractive ones.

The study concluded that newborns spent, on average, 80% of the time looking at the attractive faces, and only 20% of the time looking at the unattractive faces. According to Dr. David Alan Slater, a psychologist at Exeter, “that attractiveness is not simply in the eye of the beholder, it is in the brain of the newborn infant right from the moment of birth and possibly prior to birth.”

So, how does this tie into journalism or the media? Well, it shows us that we are all biologically programmed to be drawn to things that are pleasing to the eye. In fact, this draw toward visual stimulation is something that is rampant in the animal kingdom. For example, take the Riflebird and the extraordinary dance  that it uses to attract a mate.

In advertising, companies use similar tactics to attract consumers. In a funny stand-up comedy routine, comedian David Cross pokes fun at this concept. The beer company Coors Light has created a new beer can. This beer can has a picture of the Rocky Mountains which turns blue when the beer inside is “rocky mountain cold.” Cross pokes fun at the useless novelty of this concept, saying his sense of touch “has worked literally every time.”

But is there more to the story? It seems apparent that the executives at Coors also have the sense of touch, so maybe they invented this new can because they know that consumers, like infants, have a powerful draw to things that are visually attractive. So how long have humans been creating things that are not only functional, but also aesthetically pleasing?

Perhaps this idea is what Kevin Quealy, a graphics editor at the New York Times, had in mind when he spoke to our class about an important principle to remember; he said: “the future has an ancient heart.” This concept ties into what lies ahead for info graphics and journalism as a whole. Quealy said that “we are not necessarily thinking up new things for the first time… but improving upon things that have happened before.”

One of the earliest examples of creating for aesthetic purposes is that of the Lascaux cave paintings in Southern France. Found by archaeologist Marc Azema and French artist Florent Rivere, “…suggested that Paleolithic artists lived as long as 30,000 years ago used animation effects on cave walls…” The artists attention to detail and techniques prove how early civilizations also sought to create beautiful images.

A modern version of these cave drawings would be info-graphics. While both of them strive to inform the viewer, they are also designed to give the viewer pleasure. Subsequently, the information is delivered in an enjoyable way, which brings viewers back again and again.

This info-graphic details the last 50 years of space exploration.

Another example of the role attractiveness plays in delivering information is the 2011 documentary entitled Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film makers follow 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono and his business in the basement of a Tokyo office building. Whilst Sushi is a favorite food of mine, and Jiro is truly master of his craft, the success of the documentary does not rely solely on the charm of the story. There are many devices employed by the cameramen and editor that make the 90 minute journey into Jiro’s world a pleasure to watch. An array of tight shots and beautifully composed scenes, as demonstrated in this trailer, give testament to the notion that attractiveness plays an important part in retaining viewer attention.


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