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The Place of Product Design and Aesthetics in

Consumer Research
Robert W. Veryzer, Jr., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
ABSTRACT - Product design and aesthetics research is still in its infancy even though it has periodically
received attention from consumer researchers as well as researchers in other disciplines. The scope and
direction of this stream of research has yet to be clearly defined, and the stream's relationship to consumer
research continues to be rather vague. This paper examines the place of product design and aesthetics
research in consumer research. The paper begins by discussing design and aesthetics and provides some
background concerning the study of these topics. The efforts of consumer researchers in these areas and
the unique suitability of the discipline of consumer research for studying product design and aesthetics are
then discussed. Finally, recommendations are presented concerning the significant research questions
and issues that need to be addressed if this area is to become a viable stream in consumer research.
[ to cite ]:

Robert W. Veryzer, Jr. (1995) ,"The Place of Product Design and Aesthetics in Consumer Research", in
NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT :
Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 641-645.
[ direct url ]:


Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995

Pages 641-645


Robert W. Veryzer, Jr., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
ABSTRACT Product design and aesthetics research is still in its infancy even though it has periodically received
attention from consumer researchers as well as researchers in other disciplines. The scope and direction
of this stream of research has yet to be clearly defined, and the stream's relationship to consumer
research continues to be rather vague. This paper examines the place of product design and aesthetics
research in consumer research. The paper begins by discussing design and aesthetics and provides some
background concerning the study of these topics. The efforts of consumer researchers in these areas and
the unique suitability of the discipline of consumer research for studying product design and aesthetics are
then discussed. Finally, recommendations are presented concerning the significant research questions
and issues that need to be addressed if this area is to become a viable stream in consumer research.
There is a growing recognition that product design is emerging as a key marketing element (Kotler and
Rath 1984; Holbrook and Zirlin 1985; Wallendorf 1980). This is especially true of the portions of product
design that involve construction for human interaction and aesthetics. Design, which refers to the
organization of elements of an object, and aesthetics are inherently linked since the design or physical
form of a product encompasses aesthetic aspects of the product (e.g., shape, color, texture, etc.). The
importance of product design as a determinant of consumer behavior is increasing as the technology gaps
between companies become smaller and companies are able to produce products that are similar with
respect to features, quality, and costs (i.e., price).
Despite the growing awareness of the influence that product design can have on product preferences,
surprisingly little in the way of design or aesthetic theory has been advanced that aids in our understanding
of how people respond to design or how aesthetic responses are formed (Berlyne 1974, p. 5; Gorski 1987,

p. 68). Disciplines such as industrial (product) design [The phrase "industrial design," which is a holdover
from the days of the industrial revolution, has served to obscure the profession charges with shaping most
of the products that are produced and sold. Industrial designers (e.g., Henry Dreyfuss, Raymond Loewy,
etc.) are concerned with enhancing the appearance of manufactured products as well as improving their
utility.] are looking to the psychological sciences to address the lack of design theory (Gorski 1987). The
progress of consumer researchers in this area has been limited and sporadic. As a result of the absence of
theory, there continues to be a great deal of unease when it comes to making decisions about design and
managing design projects. This is particularly problematic for managers charged with transferring new
technology out of the laboratory and into the market. It is at this point that design and aesthetics play a
crucial role in communicating a product's identity and use to consumers.
The term "design" may be used to refer to a process or to a particular (product) composition. For the
development of consumer and industrial products this process typically involves collaboration among
industrial (product) designers, engineers, marketing experts, scientists, technicians, as well as others (Izzi
and Caplan 1972). The objective of the design process is to produce a product "design." "Design" as it is
used to refer to a particular product configuration (i.e., arrangement of elements or parts) may be viewed
as involving a number of important considerations. A successful (i.e., "good," optimal) design is one that
performs its intended function(s) well, is economical (i.e., profitable for the manufacturer and a good value
for the consumer), and is pleasant to behold. In addition, product design (i.e., configuration) plays a crucial
role in communicating a product's use (i.e., function) and operating procedure to the consumer (e.g.,
Norman 1988). The ability of a design to communicate a product's function and use to the consumer
through its form is paramount since part of the role of a product's design is to interpret technology. This
facet of design is growing in importance as the products that we interact with on a daily basis are
increasingly becoming more complex. Thus, from a functional or operational point of view a key design
issue is how to structure a product so as to promote or maximize (product) interpretation, understanding,
and use (e.g., performance, safety).
Product design (i.e., industrial design) is perhaps most associated with aesthetic considerations (Bel
Geddes 1934, pp. 222-241). While aesthetic considerations (e.g., shape, symmetry, texture, etc.) usually
pertain to the external surface(s) which house or protect the inner workings (e.g., mechanical or electrical
components) of a product, these considerations are not entirely independent of other design concerns. For
example, aesthetic considerations are influenced by (product) structure (i.e., mechanisms and components
that allow the product to perform a particular function). This is especially true of designs that strive to
communicate the function of a product rather than to conceal it. In such cases, many elements of a
product design that are thought of as being "aesthetic" (e.g., shape) are, in fact, frequently the principal
means by which the purpose and use of the object are communicated. This is particularly true today since
computer chip technology has freed many products from having to assume forms determined by the larger
mechanical components used in the past. Thus, aesthetic considerations in product design can be quite
complex and broad in scope since aesthetics (i.e., form, configuration) often plays a central role in object
perception, recognition, interpretation, understanding, and use.
Product aesthetics (i.e., design) can exert a significant influence on consumer behavior (e.g., Veryzer
1993). Enhanced product appearance can certainly be advantageous in a commercial sense, even for
utilitarian products. Although product aesthetics is central to product design, it is this facet that is least well
understood. Despite the relatively long duration of aesthetics study in disciplines such as philosophy, art
criticism, art history, psychology, anthropology, experimental aesthetics, industrial design, (and more
recently consumer research), there has been a striking inability to formulate a coherent theory with respect
to the aesthetic aspect of design. Progress in this area has been inhibited by two unresolved issues that
are fundamental to aesthetics research. The first issue concerns the locus of aesthetic experience. The
crucial question is whether aesthetic experience emanates from the object or is generated by the perceiver
of the object. This issue is apparent in a number of ongoing debates such as whether or not beauty is
governed by rules and whether or not aesthetic response is subjective. A second issue concerns the
nature of the aesthetic value of an object. Some aestheticians (e.g., Bullough 1912, pp. 783-785) maintain

that "aesthetic objects" belong to a special class of objects consisting chiefly of works of fine art and
natural phenomena (e.g., the human body, landscapes). Furthermore, it is often held that aesthetic
appreciation (i.e., experience) can only take place when the object is viewed without attention to any
practical or utilitarian consideration (e.g., Bullough 1912). This view, which has resulted in a "philosophy of
art" definition being associated with the term "aesthetics," is divergent from the classical roots of aesthetics
(e.g., Plato, The Republic) as well as the view of aestheticians who hold a wider conception of aesthetics
(e.g., Berlyne 1974, p.1).
Even though design and aesthetics have been studied for quite some time, there continues to be a great
deal of uncertainty and ambiguity concerning them. This is due primarily to the absence of theory which
encourages the impression that "good" design is a rather arbitrary affair (Finn 1990). While the
personCproduct relationship which is design is a complex one, it is likely to seem less arbitrary as we learn
to better identify and differentiate its essential parts and the factors that influence responses to it.
Since design and aesthetics are potentially important factors in the selection of many, if not most,
products, it is not surprising that consumer researchers have found them worthwhile to study. Consumer
researchers have tended to focus on the aesthetic aspect of product design. This is not surprising since
this is a central concern of design and most personCproduct relationships (i.e., interactions) begin with (the
perception of) a product's appearance (Izzi and Caplan 1972).
Beginning with some early explorations in the mid-1970s and early 1980s (e.g., Holbrook 1980; Olson
1981; Sewall 1978; Wallendorf 1980) a "slender stream of research in consumer aesthetics" began to flow
(Holbrook and Zirlin 1985, p. 2). Consumer researchers began to grapple with some of the significant
questions concerning aesthetic responses such as: "What is an aesthetic response?" and "How are
aesthetic responses formed?" (e.g., Holbrook 1980; Olson 1981). Much of this early work was concerned
with determining what the aesthetic aspect of consumption is and how aesthetic phenomena could be
researched. Consumer researchers debated the definition and scope of consumer aesthetics - with some
in the field preferring to apply aesthetic experience only to so called "artistic" or "cultural products"
(Holbrook 1980), while others acknowledged that virtually any product has an aesthetic component
(Holbrook and Zirlin 1985; Olson 1981). Although this latter view, which is consistent with an industrial
design perspective, seems to have gained general acceptance among consumer researchers, the
tendencies to associate aesthetics with "art" and "emotion," to discount its systematic influence, and to
discuss "aesthetic objects" are still present within the consumer research discipline.
Even though the aesthetic aspect of product design has been introduced into the field of consumer
research, our understanding of the phenomenon has not advanced much beyond that which we inherited
from other disciplines. There are a number of reasons that the discipline of consumer research has not
made more progress in the areas of product design and aesthetics. Perhaps the most important reasons
for the slow rate of progress are that the relevance of product design for consumer research and design's
applicability to a broad range of products have been largely overlooked. Part of the reason for this may be
due to conceptions of design and aesthetics as being essentially superficial styling or as pertaining
primarily to works of art. Such views cast the influence and scope of design and aesthetics in very narrow
terms. This tends to minimize design's importance (i.e., relevance to most product purchase situations)
and obscure its relationship to other areas that are of interest to consumer researchers (e.g., attitude,
involvement, diffusion of innovations, etc.). Many of the obstacles that have limited consumer researchers
progress in the areas of design and aesthetics are the same fundamental issues that have impeded
researchers in other disciplines that have studied these topics. The fundamental design issue concerns
how to best configure a product. This issue is extremely complex because peoples' interactions with
product designs involve multiple design considerations (e.g., function, communication/interpretation,
aesthetics) that affect a number of different reactions (e.g., understanding, aesthetic response) to the
product (design). Issues such as the locus of aesthetic experience and the nature of an "aesthetic object"
(i.e., what constitutes an aesthetic object) continue to stir debate and cloud aesthetic research (Holbrook

and Zirlin 1985). These fundamental issues must be addressed if design and aesthetics research is to
become a viable stream in consumer research.
Although there are a number of obstacles that must be overcome, there is perhaps no discipline more
ideally suited for the study of product design than that of consumer research. This discipline offers the
unique combination of scientific research methods and a tangible research context (i.e., marketing,
consumer/product focus). The consumer/product context (as opposed to an "art" context) is extremely
helpful for investigating design and aesthetics questions because it allows philosophical questions to be
recast in a more concrete form. This can be done because "successful" or "good" design in a marketing
context is more easily defined (i.e., more objective) than it is in an "art" context. This is not to say that
"good" design should be defined solely in terms of success in the marketplace or that it will always result in
high sales or increased market share. Rather, this context provides a means for assessing the effects of a
design because they are manifest in observable behavior (e.g., product purchase) which is not shrouded in
the subtleties of "artistic appreciation." Consumer research offers a more direct, concrete context in which
to investigate the influence of design and the factors that underlie peoples' responses to it (e.g., cultural
influences, psychological influences, visual organization principles, etc.).
If consumer researchers are to make a genuine contribution to our understanding of design and aesthetics
beyond those made by other disciplines, the unique research context that our field offers must be
embraced. This means that the applied consumer/product context of consumer research must be evident
in the view of design that the discipline adopts and the products on which it focuses.
In order for design and aesthetics research to progress researchers must address the fundamental issues
that have inhibited the development of theory. Moreover, consumer researchers need to develop new ways
of thinking about design and aesthetics that reflect an applied consumer/product context.
It is important for consumer researchers to adopt a conceptualization of design that acknowledges the
different aspects of product design (i.e., functional, communicative, and aesthetic) and the relationships
and trade-offs among them. These aspects represent different roles that the design of a product can play.
The roles are the different but often interrelated bases for the interaction between person and object (i.e.,
consumer and product). The various aspects of product design play a vital role in the interaction between
consumer and product and thus may affect consumer behavior (e.g., comprehension, categorization,
aesthetic response, preference, choice, use/performance, etc.).
In addition to adopting a conceptualization that reflects the various roles that design plays in a consumer
behavior context, a more complete understanding of each design aspect is needed. The functional aspect
of product design would seem to be relatively straight forward. This aspect of a product's design is often
thought to fall almost entirely within the domain of engineering design. However, when considered in terms
of the consumerCproduct interaction a broader view of the functional aspect of design emerges. For
example, a screwdriver may be used to turn screws or pry things open; shoes may be worn on feet or
used to hammer tacks into a wall. An object's form or configuration determines what one can use the
object to do. [This view of the functional aspect of design raises some interesting questions concerning
design to guard against product misuse as well as other safety issues.] While there is a certain truth to the
maxim "form follows function" this saying tends to obscure the fact that function follows (i.e., is determined
by) form. The form/function distinction is somewhat misleading because the form (i.e., configuration) of a
product determines both how the product looks (i.e., aesthetics) and how it might be used (i.e., function).
The communicative aspect or role of design (e.g., product semantics) needs to be explicitly differentiated
from other design considerations and studied. This aspect involves visual and iconic cues that help people
to interpret what an object does and how it is operated or used (e.g., the environmental controls in most
recent automobiles use the color red to indicate warm air and blue to indicate cool air). The ability of a
product (design) to effectively communicate its function and how it may be properly operated can greatly
facilitate successful personCproduct interaction. Thus, the communicative aspect of design may affect how
consumers perceive and categorize a product (e.g., product class, complexity level/technological

sophistication), influence their attitude toward its use (e.g., difficult to use), and shape their perception of
the risks involved in purchasing the product (e.g., afraid they will never use it because it is too difficult to
figure out). Design which makes a product more intelligible assists interpretation and enhances
personCproduct interaction. Ultimately, the communicative aspect of a design can make a product easier
to use and thereby increase the utility of the product.
Progress in the area of the aesthetic aspect of design will depend on consumer researchers' willingness to
adopt (maintain) a more practical view of aesthetics than has been adopted by other disciplines (except
industrial design). The view of aesthetics as pertaining only to art objects is too limited for consumer
aesthetics and, as was pointed out earlier, is not completely true to the classical roots of aesthetic inquiry
(e.g., Plato, The Republic). Consumer researchers should embrace a more inclusive view of aesthetic
experience. An aesthetic response has been defined as a response arising from the interaction between
an object's appearance (i.e., characteristics and configuration) and the perceiver of the object (Berlyne
1974; Veryzer 1993). [This definition reflects a visual orientation but may be adapted to reflect other
orientations (e.g., auditory, tactile, etc.).] This definition allows for the possibility that virtually any product
can be appreciated in an aesthetic sense (Berlyne 1974; Wallendorf 1980). Although this definition
recognizes that all product designs involve an aesthetic component, is does not suggest that aesthetic
response plays a significant role in the purchase of every product. Another feature of this definition is that it
clearly acknowledges the interaction between the perceiver and the object (i.e., product) in the formation of
an aesthetic response.
Consumer researchers must also address questions concerning a product's "nature" (i.e., aesthetic vs.
utilitarian). Distinctions are often made between "aesthetic" and "utilitarian" objects (e.g., Holbrook 1980;
Holbrook and Zirlin 1985). Clear distinctions such as these can be difficult to make because all objects
have an aesthetic component in that they have a physical form or appearance that can be perceived and
thus give rise to an aesthetic response (Berlyne 1974, p. 1; Holbrook and Zirlin 1985; Wallendorf 1980).
Likewise, one can argue that every object, even "art" objects, may serve a utilitarian purpose or function
(e.g., plays, music, novels, and movies can be used to entertain; paintings and sculpture can be used to
establish a mood in a living or work space). Furthermore, distinctions concerning the "aestheticness" (i.e.,
aesthetic or utilitarian nature) of an object imply that aesthetic experience emanates from the object. While
the aesthetic vs. utilitarian distinction may possibly be made with respect to how a particular object is
viewed or used (i.e., consumed) by a particular person on a particular occasion, such a distinction is
person and situation specific (i.e., dependent). For example, consider the use of "utilitarian" objects such
as railroad paraphernalia (e.g., lanterns, railroad track, railroad cars, crossing gates, etc.) to decorate the
interior of a restaurant. In such instances there is an inversion of a product's apparent nature from
utilitarian to aesthetic because of circumstances particular to the perceiver or as in this case the situation.
Thus, the aesthetic vs. utilitarian distinction is not intrinsic to an object. Although some objects may be
more likely to be appreciated primarily in either an aesthetic or utilitarian sense within the context of a
particular culture (i.e., situation), how the object is ultimately perceived is determined in large measure by
the perceiver and the underlying factors that affect his or her perception (e.g., culture, psychological
characteristics, etc.).
A more useful way of classifying products may be to focus on the aesthetic and/or utilitarian intention (i.e.,
the purpose or aim of the interest in the object) of the perceiver. This approach acknowledges the role of
the perceiver as well as the situational factors in determining the "nature" (aesthetic or utilitarian) of an
object. For example, an antique clock could potentially be appreciated for primarily aesthetic or utilitarian
reasons. The degree to which it is appreciated for either one or both of these things is not fixed by the
object (e.g., clock) itself but rather can vary depending on the "intention" (i.e., reason for examining the
object) of the perceiver of the object on a particular occasion. Clearly, there may be factors such as culture
or situation specific influences (e.g., peer group, economic circumstances) that encourage a tendency to
appreciate a product in a particular manner (i.e., aesthetic or utilitarian). Thus, to some degree intention
may be "fixed" (i.e., determined) by factors external to the product (e.g., in one culture a play may be a
way of imparting history or values while in another culture the play may be viewed as entertainment).

Another way of looking at products involves the sentient nature of (a response to) an object. "Sentientality"
refers to the degree to which the design of a product consistently promotes a particular sensation or
feeling (e.g., aesthetic response) across perceivers of the product. Sentientality is concerned with the
consistency of the response to the product rather than whether the response is positive or negative.
Therefore, high-sentientality can refer to either a consistently positive or consistently negative (or
consistently neutral) response. In the case of products exhibiting high-sentientality, it is likely that the
consistent (i.e., systematic) response is due to underlying factors that consciously or unconsciously
influence peoples reactions to the object (e.g., visual organization principles - unity, proportion, etc.). [See
Veryzer 1993 for a discussion of the Design Principle Algorithm explanation of aesthetic response.]
Products that do not foster consistent responses across perceivers can be said to exhibit low-sentientality.
In such cases, responses to product design are likely to reflect primarily idiosyncratic influences (e.g.,
person specific experiences). Sentientality acknowledges the role of the product in forming responses to
design. However, it is likely to be dependent, in part, on things such as internalized visual organization
principles and prevalent aesthetic associations (i.e., association between an element or characteristic of
an object and a previously encountered object or situation) that the perceiver has developed. Thus, the
sentientality exhibited by a product is not necessarily intrinsic to the product itself (e.g., products that
display the colors associated with a particular school may be prized in the region near the school but
treated indifferently outside of that region).
These two dimensions (i.e., continuums), perceiver intention and product sentientality, can be combined to
form a grid that can be used to "classify" products according to the perceiver's intention toward the product
(i.e., aesthetic and/or utilitarian interest) and the degree to which the product fosters a systematic
response when perceived. In Figure 1, the four panels of the grid represent different product "natures" or
dispositions with respect to consumer response to product design. A consumer's response may reflect a
utilitarian or aesthetic intention or possibly both. For products where the perceiver's current intention is
utilitarian the response would involve a reaction to the product's abilities (or suitability) to perform a given
task (e.g., frustration because a product is difficult to operate). For products where the perceiver's current
intention involved aesthetic appreciation the reaction would be an aesthetic response. In cases where the
perceiver's intention concerns both utilitarian and aesthetic appreciation both types of responses would be
involved. Sentientality refers to the consistency of these "intention-based" responses. That is, the degree
to which a product promotes a consistent response with respect to aesthetic- and/or utilitarian-based
responses. For example, consumers may consistently appreciate the accuracy of a particular digital
wristwatch in keeping time (i.e., high-sentientality of utilitarian-based intention). However, consumers may
have a wide variety of reactions to the watch's appearance (i.e., low-sentientality of aesthetic-based
intention). In the event forces external to the product shift, the "disposition" of the product may change
(e.g., new technology could make the watch obsolete; a "back-to-basics" trend could lead consumers to
view the high-tech. look of digital watches negatively).
The product design disposition grid is one approach to understanding product responses to design and the
mutable nature of products. The approach acknowledges the roles of both the product and the perceiver in
forming a response to a (product) design. An approach such as this would seem to offer a perspective that
is less problematic with respect to the changeable nature of products than the traditional aesthetic vs.
utilitarian distinction.
In addition to the areas that relate directly to the fundamental issues of design and aesthetics, there are a
number of other important research questions that need to be investigated. More research is needed to
identify factors that influence peoples' responses to product designs (e.g., psychological factors, culture,
socio-economic factors, gender, visual organization principles, prototypicality, etc.). Another area that
requires further study concerns the relationship between product "disposition" and fashion cycles.
Changes in product preference patterns suggest that a disruption or shift in a product's sentientality may
have occurred. A better understanding of the process by which such shifts occur could lead to a more

complete understanding of fashion as it pertains to product design. The development of methods for
studying the consumerCproduct interaction should also receive more attention. Ultimately, methods are
needed that can guide decisions concerning product configuration. Finally, the relationships between
design and other streams in consumer research need to be explored. The often subtle and unconscious
influence of design and aesthetics on consumers' product perceptions may have an indirect affect on a
broad range of behaviors. Design and aesthetics may be a factor in areas of interest to consumer
researchers such as attitude formation, brand choice, categorization, involvement, symbolic consumption,
Design is an important variable that can have a significant impact on consumers' responses to products.
As such, it is a legitimate marketing interest that merits the attention of consumer researchers. The
discipline of consumer research is well suited for studying product design and aesthetics because of its
research methods and its applied consumer/product context. The ability to make new and meaningful
contributions to our knowledge of design and aesthetics will depend on utilization of this context in order to
address the issues that continue to inhibit progress in these areas. If this stream is to become viable, the
ambiguities surrounding conceptions of design and aesthetics as well as the questions concerning the
products suitable for study must be addressed. Although the discipline of consumer research has not
rushed to investigate or embrace the study of design and aesthetics, it has in the past clearly shown that it
is open to exploring areas such as these. However, the burden falls, as it should, on the researchers
investigating these topics to demonstrate that design and aesthetic considerations are important and
relevant to consumer research. In order to do this consumer researchers must be willing to approach
design and aesthetics from their own perspective and formulate new ways of thinking about these topics
that reflect the unique perspective of the consumer research discipline.
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