good design is aesthetics, aesthetics is good design (and the trouble with dictionary definitions)

The popular understanding of aesthetics is perhaps best illustrated by the common definition (from Oxford’s Dictionary of English, 2020 edition):

aesthetics (US also esthetics)
⁃ PLURAL NOUN [usually treated as singular]
a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty.
• the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste.

Now what is beauty? Well we can look at that definition too:

beauty
⁃ NOUN {plural beauties)
1 [mass noun] a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight:
• a combination of qualities that pleases the intellect: the artistry and beauty of football.
• [as modifier] denoting something intended to make someone more attractive: beauty treatment.

It’s immediately apparent that the common definitions are viciously circular, aesthetics and beauty are defined in terms of each other! (Technically ‘aesthetic’, without the s, is primarily a verb but that has the exact same issue as the noun)

i.e. going one layer deep, ‘beauty’ is defined by beauty ! And ‘aesthetics’ is defined by aesthetics !

It clearly doesn’t make sense to define anything like this, let alone the ideas we would like to express by ‘beauty’ or ‘aesthetics’.

So what is the right way to define aesthetics?

Well we can redefine beauty but the simplest way, without throwing out the dictionary, is to define it in terms of a more appropriate word. The word has to be as close as possible to the meaning of ‘beauty’ without the vicious circularity.

There are a few possibilities, the closest seems to be ‘elegance’, not quite the same but without introducing new words into the english language, or using an unwieldy phrase, this seems like the best we can do. Again from Oxford:

elegance
⁃ NOUN [mass noun]
1 the quality of being graceful and stylish in appearance or manner: a slender woman with grace and elegance.
2 the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple; neatness: the simplicity and elegance of the solution.

Aha! There in the second definition, that is something we can work with.

“the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple”

That’s the ideal of good design too!

In fact the word ‘elegance’ is already commonly used to describe many things that are primarily considered to be good design. The most beloved Apple products for example.

Now if we replace the word ‘beauty’ with ‘elegance’ in the above definition of ‘aesthetics’ we get:

aesthetics (US also esthetics)
⁃ PLURAL NOUN [usually treated as singular]
a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of elegance.
• the branch of philosophy which deals with questions of elegance and artistic taste.

Okay, that mostly works. It captures the vast majority of the meaning when we say this word in everyday life. And when we combine it together:

aesthetics (US also esthetics)
a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple.

That sure sounds about right! Although not ideal it has more explanatory power than the original definition. In short,

Anything with good design has a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple.

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