Aesthetic Interaction & Craft
by IG on March 23, 2014

Aesthetic Interaction
& Craft

Anyone who uses a properly designed object feels the presence of an artist who has worked for him, bettering his living conditions and encouraging him to develop his taste and sense of beauty.(Munari, 1966, p. 26)

The practice of design can be a political act, as design artifacts can communicate the values and beliefs of their makers. These aesthetics of use can elevate a conversation in that, even if not immediately appreciated or valued, carefully crafted and beautiful work is respectful of the viewer’s intelligence, sensitivity, and ability to rise to the level of understanding and appreciation. Indeed, if the artist or designer understands the values and beliefs embodied in their work, the very practice of their craft can take on the role of an advocate or cultural activist. How then do these values apply to work in the digital medium?

Shaker ideals

This is inline with the Shaker maxim “don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful,” that acknowledges beauty as a natural part of necessity and use. The Shakers were a religious sect founded in the 18th century in England which settled in colonial America. The Shaker’s crafting skills were renowned for a refined aesthetic and utility. Their practice was a sincere embodiments of their religious lifestyle, culture, and community values. It is not just the artifacts themselves but the beliefs communicated through them that are beautiful. Simply put, there is a sense of inherent joy in beholding and using these objects.

shaker crafts

Spool Box and Cover, c. 1825-40; Tree of life, 1854; Side chair, c. 1880; Trustees’ Desk, 19th century

Rewards are not just for the end

Csikszentmihayli and Robinson (1990) performed empirical studies on the reactions of art viewers and found that these viewers sought an interaction with art “not because they expect a result or reward after the activity is concluded, but because they enjoyed what they are doing to the extent that experiencing the activity became its own reward” (pp. 6-7). They described this as an “autotelic experience, that is, one that contains the goal in itself” in which the viewer had an immersive flow experience. “Flow” is a term the authors use “to describe the deep involvement in and effortless progression of the activity” (pp. 6-7). In another study of aesthetic interaction (or resonant interaction) this flow experience was characterized by “terms such as fun, surprise, delight, engagement, and rewarding” (Locher, Overbeeke & Wensveen, 2010, pp. 70-71). This has implications for how one crafts for experiences that have these positive qualities.

Patterns of use: evidence of maker and material

Should work created in the digital medium not still demonstrate the warmth and touch of its maker? Can the hand of the maker be an invisible guide for interactors, moving them seamlessly through patterns of use? This could be described as feedforward (anticipating use) and feedback (responding and reinforcing use), framed by the idea that “the origins of pattern are inextricably sewn into the fabric of use” (Yanagi, 1989, p. 117). Considered in these terms, a successful pattern design for an experience is when the embodied values of the maker match the needs of the interactor for necessity, usefulness, and beauty, whether those “needs” be conscious or as yet undiscovered.

shaker crafts

In this Japanese traditional craft technique, individual lengths of thread are dyed at intervals along the woof and weft. The pattern is revealed once the cloth is woven. Perhaps this is analogous to the craft of the digital medium, where the threads of code manifest their patterns through the weaving of the program.

Mac Paint Advertising image

Susan Kare created this iconic example of pixel-craft for Apple Inc.’s MacPaint advertising in 1984. It was based upon a Japanese woodblock print in Steve Job’s collection. Coarse pixels of early screens were the basic building blocks of design; the patterns reveal a graphic similarity to weaving.

Phillip Meggs (1992) proposes that “the history of design is the history of technology and craftsmanship.” As someone who deeply appreciates art and design, and claims it as a metier, beauty is like a pattern. By studying the pattern one zooms in to understand the threads that weave through.

Autotelic web interactions

Dr. Jakob Nielson is a well-known pundit who had a formative influence on the early days of the Internet as it emerged from a primarily textual medium expanding to offer rich media capacities. Through his website, Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability, he wielded an influence that focused primarily on necessity and use with little regard for beauty. As early as 1998, Michael D. Levi took Nielson’s usability principles and reframed them in terms of Shaker principles in the article A Shaker Approach to Website Design [PDF]. Many of these ideas around clarity, organization, and beauty still ring true for current digital design practice. As these examples show, the simple materials of image and type are employed for function, usefulness and beauty.

Apple Inc. revolutionized the smartphone industry in 2007 when they release the iPhone. Their products are renowned for a combination of innovative function, intuitive usability and playful beauty. These are samples of the iOs 7 interface on the iPhone 5s.

Lotta Nieminen is featured on the The Great Discontent, an online magazine with interviews on beginnings, creativity, and risk. The site employs a deceptively simple layout and elegant typography that works fluidly across many different devices and screens.

The design of the Vickers Bicyle Company website works to embody the qualities they wish to convey about their products: “Elegant. Simple. Stylish.”

Movement towards digital craftsmanship

How form can communicate values, autotelic experience, patterns of use and aesthetics of use, and how beauty can humanize function, all offer rich potential for craftsmanship in the digital medium. Beauty builds upon function rather than being in conflict with it. In this symbiotic relationship, the underlying ability of art and design practice to inform and delight is revealed. These ideas and examples hopefully highlight the value of art and design practice in relation to function and usefulness, and why consideration of the “aesthetics of interaction” is worth the extra effort. Good design builds relationships and creates affection. The iPhone or a crafted object are not just consumables, they are an embodiment of the sentiment of their creators. ♦



Listed consecutively, left to right

Shaker Brother Ricardo Belden, making wooden oval boxes in a workshop at the Hancock Shaker Village, near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (1935) Samuel Kravitt. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Retrieved on March 11, 2015, from

Spool Box and Cover (c. 1825-40) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, USA. ARTstor 103883042.

Tree of Life (1854), Edward Deming Andrews, 18″ x 23″, University of Georgia Libraries. ARTstor 4590002.

Side Chair (c. 1880) New York Historical Society. ARTstor 2360007.

Trustees’ Desk (19th century), University of Georgia Libraries. ARTstor 2370001.

Kimono [Left column] (Japanese, early 20th century). Seattle Art Museum. ARTstor 10312601137.

Bedding cover [Center column] (futonji) (Japanese, late 19th – early 20th century). Seattle Art Museum. ARTstor 10312600836.

Okinawan kimono [Right column] (19th century), Japanese. Seattle Art Museum. ARTstor 10312601480.

MacPaint advertising illustration (1984), Susan Kare, Cupertino, CA: Apple Inc. Retrieved from

iPhone & iOs interface (May 4, 2014). MacRumours. Retrieved from

The great discontent: Lotta Nieminen [Screen capture] (Feb 28, 2012), Essmaker, R., & Essmaker, T. Retrieved from on May 4, 2014. Photo by Osma Harvilahti.

Vickers bicycle company website [Screen capture] (May 4, 2014), Retrieved from

Works cited

Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Robinson, R. E. (1990). The art of seeing: An interpretation of the aesthetic encounter. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications.

Levi, M. D. (2008, July 19). A shaker approach to web site design. Retrieved from [archive]

Locher, P., Overbeeke, K., & Wensveen, S. (2010). Aesthetic interaction: A framework. Design Issues, 26(2), 70-79. Retrieved from

Meggs, P. (1992). A history of graphic design, 2nd edition. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Munari, B. (1966). Design as art. London: Penguin Group.

Yanagi, S. (1989). The unknown craftsman: A Japanese insight into beauty. New York, NY: Kodansha America Inc.

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One Comments

  • Susan Kare:

    “People say graphic design is so different now, because you have so many more pixels and colors to work with,” Kare says. “But when you study art history, you see there’s just nothing new under the sun. Mosaics and needlework, it’s all analogous to pixel and bitmap art. And with it all, good design’s not about what medium you’re working in, it’s about thinking hard about what you want to do and what you have to work with before you start.”

    A version of this article appeared in the February 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.

    — Maybe my article here had some influence on Kare’s quote? I can always fantasize about my influence on others, wink wink.

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