Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 16

The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at

www.emeraldinsight.com/0309-0566.htm

Product value importance and


consumer preference for visual
complexity and symmetry
Marielle E.H. Creusen
Section Marketing and Consumer Research,
Department of Product Innovation and Management,
Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Delft University of Technology,
Delft, The Netherlands

Product value
importance

1437
Received January 2008
Revised July 2008
November 2008
February 2009
Accepted February 2009

Robert W. Veryzer
Robert Veryzer Research, and

Jan P.L. Schoormans


Section Marketing and Consumer Research,
Department of Product Innovation and Management,
Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Delft University of Technology,
Delft, The Netherlands
Abstract
Purpose Product design is an important marketing variable. Most literature about consumer
preference for product design focuses on aesthetic product value. However, the appearance of a
product also influences consumer perception of functionalities, quality, and ease of use. This paper
therefore, seeks to assess how preference for visual complexity and symmetry depends on the type of
product value that is important to people.
Design/methodology/approach In a conjoint study the utility of visual complexity and
symmetry in determining preference for eight VCR pictures are assessed (n 422). These utilities are
used as dependent variables in regression analyses with the different product values (aesthetic,
functionalities, quality, and ease of use) as independent variables.
Findings The effects of visual complexity and symmetry on consumers preferences depend on the
product value to which consumers paid attention.
Research limitations/implications To increase insight into the relationship between design and
consumer product preference, the impact of a design on consumer perception of all types of product
value not only aesthetic value should be taken into account.
Originality/value This research has direct implications for managers overseeing aspects of
product development relating to aligning the design effort with target customers and determining
specific product design executions.
Keywords Product design, Consumer psychology, Consumer behaviour, Visual perception
Paper type Research paper

Introduction
Product design is acknowledged as an important marketing variable (e.g. Dumaine,
1991; Kotler, 2003; Lorenz, 1986; Roy, 1994; Pilditch, 1976; Thackara, 1997; Yamamoto
and Lambert, 1994). To be successful in todays increasingly competitive marketplace,

European Journal of Marketing


Vol. 49 No. 9/10, 2010
pp. 1437-1452
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
0309-0566
DOI 10.1108/03090561011062916

EJM
49,9/10

1438

the appearance of new products has to match the preferences of consumers: consumers
must like the looks of a product. In other words, companies need to take into account
the aesthetic preferences of consumers when they make decisions about the appearance
of their products. So, it is not surprising that much of the research into consumer
perception of product appearance has centered on aesthetic appreciation. In this
literature, visual organization principles are often mentioned as influencers of
aesthetic preferences. These are general design principles or qualities, such as
complexity, unity, symmetry and proportion. According to the existing literature,
people generally prefer low (but not too low) complexity, high unity and high
symmetry, and have a preference for specific proportions that differs between product
types (e.g. Berlyne, 1971; Hekkert et al., 1994; Lauer, 1979; Lewalski, 1988; Veryzer and
Hutchinson, 1998). As an example, these preferred design principle levels are, in our
opinion, reflected in Bang & Olufsen products, a Danish brand for audio and video
products that is well known for its good aesthetics.
Consumer researchers have made important advances into understanding the
cognitive and emotional reactions of consumers to product design and appearance (e.g.
Bloch, 1995; Creusen and Schoormans, 2005; Crilly et al., 2004; Veryzer and Hutchinson,
1998). Relevant marketing literature stresses that the appearance of a product not only
influences the aesthetic value of a product, but also the perceived functional and
ergonomic product value (Bloch, 1995; Creusen and Schoormans, 2005; Veryzer, 1995).
Therefore, visual design principles might be expected to not only influence aesthetic
preferences, but also the perception of ease of use, functionality, and quality (see
Veryzer and Hutchinson, 1998). For example, to make something look easy to use, the
number of controls (such as buttons) should be minimized, as more controls make a
product look more complex (Norman, 1988). A complex design will therefore negatively
influence consumers perception of ease of use. To get a more complete and valid
insight into the relationship between design and consumer product preference, the
impact of a design on consumer perception of all types of product value not only
aesthetic value should be taken into account. Up until now, research into the
influence of visual design principles has mainly focused on aesthetic value. In this
study, we investigate whether the preferred level of visual design principles depends
on the type of product value aesthetic value, functionalities and quality (i.e.
functional value), and ergonomic value (i.e. ease of use; see Creusen and Schoormans,
2005) that is important to consumers. If this is the case, the preferred level of visual
design principles in a durable product context might differ from the existing findings
from the literature. This is an important addition to current knowledge about the
influence of product appearance on consumer preference, and has implications for
managers overseeing aspects of product development relating to aligning the design
effort with target customers and determining specific product design executions.
Thus in order to design a preferred product in terms of appearance, the question
needs to be answered as to how the different design principles influence the perception
of different types of product value. In this article we will begin to address this question
for two important visual design principles:
(1) complexity; and
(2) symmetry (Berlyne, 1971; Lauer, 1979; Murdoch and Flurscheim, 1983).

We will indicate that the preferred level of complexity and symmetry in a design
depends on the type of product value that is important to consumers aesthetic value,
functionalities, quality, or ease of use. This information will help companies in attuning
the appearance of their product offerings to consumer preference. Furthermore,
although preferences for visual complexity and symmetry have been investigated in
the literature, they have not yet been addressed in a durable product context. Most of
the research into the influence of these principles is done with simple, artificial
nonsense stimuli and concerning aesthetic value only. Only a few authors have
investigated the influence of design characteristics on aesthetic preference for products
(e.g. Hekkert, 1995; Veryzer, 1993; Veryzer and Hutchinson, 1998). As useful and
important as results from previous studies are, there is a need to investigate how
design principles apply in a (more) realistic product context. For example, unlike the
case for artificial nonsense stimuli, perceived ease of use and number of functionalities
play a role in preference for product designs. In this article we address the important
issue of how visual complexity and symmetry influence consumer product preference
for realistic product concepts, in which, next to aesthetic value, aspects such as ease of
use, functionalities and quality are also important for consumers.
In this research we focus on durable products, for which all types of product value
aesthetic value, functionalities and quality and ergonomic value are expected to play
a role for consumers to some extent. For fast-moving consumer goods, aesthetic value
and functionalities might play some role, but to a much lesser extent than for durable
products. For fast-moving consumer products, drawing attention and ease of
categorization will be more important roles for product appearance or package (Garber
et al., 2000).
In the next section, we will briefly explain the visual design principles complexity
and symmetry. After that, hypotheses about the influence of product value type
importance aesthetic value, functionalities, quality, and ease of use on preferences
for visual complexity and symmetry in the design of a durable product are posited.
Next, we present a study in which the relation between the importance of the product
value types (for consumers) and their preferences for visual complexity and symmetry
are assessed. After that the results are presented, followed by managerial and research
implications.
Visual complexity and symmetry
In this section we briefly explain visual complexity and symmetry and their relation to
consumer preference before moving on to the hypotheses, where the relationship of
complexity and symmetry with specific types of product value is discussed.
Several authors have described one or more visual organization principles or
structural principles of design (e.g. Arnheim, 1974; Berlyne, 1971; Gombrich, 1979;
Lauer, 1979; Lewalski, 1988; Loebach, 1976; Muller, 2001; Murdoch and Flurscheim,
1983; Schmitt and Simonson, 1997; Veryzer, 1993). Among the most frequently
mentioned visual design principles are complexity and symmetry.
According to Berlyne (1971), a larger number of independently selected elements
and less similarity among these elements make a pattern more complex. Muller (2001)
cites a school of predominantly German theoreticians (e.g. Birkhoff) and Gestalt
psychologists who believed that a high degree of ordering and low complexity lead to
aesthetic preference. However, according to Berlyne (1971), there is an inverted

Product value
importance

1439

EJM
49,9/10

1440

U-shaped relationship between attractiveness and visual complexity, as very low


complexity stimuli tend to be viewed as being unappealing or even dull.
Symmetrical balance has a seemingly basic appeal (Berlyne, 1971; Lauer, 1979).
Murdoch and Flurscheim (1983) add that symmetry suggests a state of order, but that
some asymmetry can often create a greater sense of interest. A touch of asymmetry can
be appealing by adding an element of uniqueness (Schmitt and Simonson, 1997).
Symmetry is often mentioned as the simplest case of balance (e.g. Lauer, 1979). Lauer
(1979) describes balance as equal visual weight at both sides of an axis, so that there is
a sense of equilibrium. In symmetrical balance, shapes are repeated in the same
position on either side of an axis. Asymmetrical balance is more subtle (Lauer, 1979), in
that the visual weight and eye attraction of two sides are balanced but with different
elements. Preference for symmetry has been found for human faces (see Rhodes, 2006)
and for simple artificial images (e.g. Rentschler et al., 1999).
Hypotheses
Product appearance influences consumer perception of aesthetic, symbolic, functional,
and ergonomic product value (Bloch, 1995; Creusen and Schoormans, 2005). We
therefore expect that consumer preferences for visual design principles depend on the
value that is important to these consumers in buying a certain product. Here we specify
expectations for the influences of visual complexity and symmetry on perceived
aesthetic, functional (functional value consists of functionalities and quality; Creusen
and Schoormans, 2005), and ergonomic product value. Symbolic value is not explicitly
included, as the preference for visual design principles will depend on the specific
symbolic association that someone values. For example, when someone values a chic
and business-like looking product, visual complexity may decrease preference, while
for someone who likes a playful or a hi-tech looking product, visual complexity may
heighten preference. However, with regard to product appearance, symbolic and
aesthetic value are often intertwined in a consumers evaluation (Creusen and
Schoormans, 2005), and therefore part of the preferred symbolic value will be included
in the judgment about aesthetic value.
The relationship between visual complexity and aesthetic value as discussed in the
literature is not entirely clear. Berlyne (1971) proposes an inverted U-shaped relation
between complexity and aesthetic preference, and ample evidence for this relationship
has been found (see Hekkert and Leder, 2008). However, other, mainly monotonic,
relationships have been observed as well, especially when the stimulus material was
more meaningful (namely real artworks) than the simple artificial stimuli used in most
studies (Hekkert and Leder, 2008). According to Hekkert (1995), Berlynes model has
limited explanatory value for meaningful objects, such as products. However, this has
never been tested for products. So following Hekkerts notion, only a small or no
significant effect of complexity on aesthetic preference should be found for products. In
this study we will test whether Berlynes theory also applies to real products.
According to Berlynes theory (Berlyne, 1971) people will aesthetically prefer low
visual complexity, although not too low, as then stimuli become unappealing or dull.
Real products, as opposed to artificial nonsense stimuli, are not extremely low in visual
complexity, as they will at least have some buttons or a display. Therefore they will not
easily be perceived as being too dull. We therefore expect that subjects for whom
aesthetics is important will prefer a less complex product:

H1. Subjects who attach more importance to aesthetics show less preference for a
visually complex product design.
In general, people aesthetically prefer high symmetry. This has been found for abstract
patterns and for faces (e.g. Berlyne, 1971; Jacobsen and Hofel, 2002; Lauer, 1979;
Rentschler et al., 1999; Rhodes, 2006). Symmetry provides order and relieves tension
(Schmitt and Simonson, 1997). As symmetry seems to have a basic appeal (Berlyne,
1971; Lauer, 1979), it is often used in designs. However, the appeal of symmetry in real
products, although often mentioned (e.g. Murdoch and Flurscheim, 1983; Schmitt and
Simonson, 1997), has not yet been investigated experimentally. In this study, it will be
investigated as to whether symmetry is indeed also aesthetically preferred for
products. Several authors mention that complete symmetry may be too monotonic and
thereby boring; a touch of asymmetry can be appealing by adding an element of
uniqueness, which may create a greater sense of interest (e.g. Murdoch and Flurscheim,
1983; Schmitt and Simonson, 1997). In reality, highly symmetric products are almost
never completely symmetrical to the extent that they look boring. So we expect that
subjects for whom aesthetics is an important factor determining their product
preference will in general prefer a more symmetric to a less symmetric product.
H2. Subjects who attach more importance to aesthetics more strongly prefer a
symmetric product design.
Concerning functionalities, we expect the following. A visually complex product will
look more technologically complex; more controls lead people to infer that there are
more functionalities (Norman, 1988). We therefore expect subjects for whom
functionalities are important to have more preference for a visually complex design
than subjects who attach less importance to functionalities. We did not find any
literature in which a relation between symmetry and perception of functionality is
proposed. Indeed, we could not think of any reason why symmetry would influence the
perceived amount of functionalities. Whether the same number of controls is divided
symmetrically or asymmetrically over the product surface is unlikely to influence the
number of functionalities people infer the product to have. Therefore we do not pose a
hypothesis concerning the influence of symmetry on perceived functionality and
indeed we check in our study whether no significant relationship is found:
H3. Subjects who attach more importance to functionalities, more strongly prefer
a visually complex product design.
There is almost no literature concerning the influence of visual design principles on
quality perception. Veryzer and Hutchinson (1998) found a positive influence of unity
on the perception of product quality. A possible reason for this effect might be that
high unity gives consumers the impression that a company has paid attention to the
product and its design, and this could engender a high quality impression in
consumers. When this would be the case, one could argue that high symmetry and less
complexity (increasing a sense of order) might possibly have the same positive effect
on quality perception. In stores, the more expensive audio equipment (e.g. the brands
Bang & Olufsen and Loewe) indeed often has a simple, non-cluttered, design. However,
for complexity one could also envision an effect in the opposite direction, so that higher
complexity heightens perceived quality. More controls make a product look more
complex (Norman, 1988). As it has more controls, people may expect a complex looking

Product value
importance

1441

EJM
49,9/10

1442

product to have many functionalities (see also H3). People could interpret a product
having many functionalities as a more high end product. While they may not want
the larger number of functionalities per se, more functionalities may signal a more
high end product and thereby higher quality to them. Creusen (2006) indeed found
that the perceived amount of functionalities increased the perceived quality for a coffee
maker. As a product with more functionalities tends to look more complex, we
therefore expect that higher visual complexity heightens perceived product quality. As
we did not find any literature that specifically addresses the influence of symmetry and
visual complexity on perceived quality, here we offer hypotheses to begin this inquiry:
H4. Subjects who attach more importance to product quality, more strongly prefer
a symmetric product design.
H5. Subjects who attach more importance to product quality, more strongly prefer
a visually complex product design.
We expect that visual complexity influences perceived ergonomic product value that
is, perceived ease of use. A less complex product looks easier to use and understand, as
a smaller number of controls (making the product look less complex) makes the
product look easier to use (Norman, 1988). We therefore expect that visual complexity
lowers the impression that the product is easy to use. Concerning symmetry, Murdoch
and Flurscheim (1983) note that a symmetrical arrangement of controls on a product
contributes to an impression of order and tidiness, but that an asymmetrical
arrangement may be ergonomically preferable. Their remark is made concerning large
products (a bus and large computer system) where of course positioning of controls has
more ergonomical consequences. So on the one hand, one could expect that more
symmetry makes the product look more orderly and thereby clearer/easier to use. On
the other hand, differentiation between elements and in the form as a whole (i.e. less
symmetry) may increase perceived ease of use, as one can imagine that buttons can be
better distinguished from each other when not arranged symmetrically. Symmetry
would lead to uniformity in button shape and placement, which makes it more difficult
to locate a specific button. Differences between parts for product-user interaction may
give clues for operation. As there has been no research into this relation and opposite
influences can be hypothesized, we do not pose a hypothesis concerning the influence
of symmetry on perceived ergonomic product value:
H6. Subjects who attach more importance to ease of use show less preference for a
visually complex product design.
Methodology
First, we will give a brief overview of the methodology used. An orthogonal factorial
stimulus design was used so that we could independently assess the influence of
complexity and symmetry on consumer design preferences. Product alternatives with
different combinations of low and high complexity and symmetry were rated by
consumers to assess their preferences. By means of conjoint analysis, their utility for
visual symmetry and complexity could be assessed. Subjects also indicated the
importance of aesthetic, functional, and ergonomic product value in their product
preference ratings. In this way, the influence of the importance of each type of product
value on the utility for visual symmetry and complexity could be assessed.

Subjects
A questionnaire including pictures of the experimental stimuli products was sent to
each of 512 members of a consumer household research panel affiliated with a leading
European University. The gender, age, and education of the panel members was
known. The percentage of male subjects was 54.3. Ages ranged between 17 and 84
years, with a mean age of 49.9 years. About 33 per cent of the subjects were in each of
three educational groups, i.e. low, medium and high. Low education level includes
primary school, lower vocational training and lower secondary education; medium
education includes medium level vocational training and higher secondary education;
and high education includes higher vocational training and university education (for
clarity we use general terms, as specific schools differ according to country).

Product value
importance

1443

Stimuli and pretests


Eight realistic pictures of video recorders (VCRs) were used as stimuli (see Figure 1).
VCRs were chosen as stimuli because their design can be adequately represented in 2D,
and thus in a printed questionnaire, as most buttons and other information are on the
front side. Furthermore, a wide variety of VCRs were available on the market and this
was thought to be conducive to meeting the requirements of the experimental design,
particularly filling the cells of the orthogonal factorial design. At the time of research,
although DVD players were also available, most people still used a VCR. However,
findings for VCRs will generalize to other black box electronic products, such as
audio equipment and DVD players, as they also have a rectangular shape with buttons
and a display. Pictures of VCRs were collected from the internet and from product
brochures, supplemented with digital pictures taken of actual VCRs in store displays.
The picture quality (number of pixels) and size were standardized across the stimulus
set. To prevent an influence of brand name on product preference, brand names were
replaced by the fictitious brand name VCR. In addition, textual functional
information that was not present on all VCRs (such as show view) was deleted in
order to avoid a potential confound. The label VHS was present on all VCRs (as all

Figure 1.
An overview of the VCR
pictures that are used in
the study. The mean
preference scores are listed
underneath each picture

EJM
49,9/10

1444

VCRs have this system in Europe) and these characters were made consistent across all
of the VCRs. To prevent the effect of color confounding the effect of the visual design
principles on preference, the pictures were presented in black-and-white. As VCRs are
not colorful products (most are black, grey, or metallic), presenting them in black and
white did not greatly reduce the realism of the pictures.
In order to find product alternatives suited to fill the orthogonal factorial design,
pretests were conducted with students in their third or fourth year of study and
graduates in industrial design engineering. These subjects had been trained in visual
design principles in the course of their studies, which made them well suited to judge
stimuli on the amount in which they complied with specific visual design principles.
Booklets containing black-and-white pictures of VCRs were presented to the subjects (in
class or personally), who scored them with respect to the visual design principles. Four
pictures were presented on one page. First, one visual design principle was briefly
described, after which all pictures followed. Underneath each picture was a seven-point
scale of which only the end-poles were labeled, namely low [complexity/symmetry]-high
[complexity/symmetry]. After this, the same procedure was followed for the second
visual design principle. To diminish order effects, two different orders of the visual
design principles and two orders of VCR pictures were used (i.e. four different booklets in
total). Based on the resulting mean scores, pictures were divided into low, medium and
high symmetry and complexity. In order to fill the cells of the research design, VCRs
with all combinations of low and high complexity and symmetry were needed.
The pre-tests highlighted some interesting relationships among visual design
principles as evidenced on actual products, as well as patterns for this class of
products. For example, in the first pre-test, using 52 pictures of real VCRs, complexity
correlated negatively with symmetry (r 20:60, p , 0:001). Most VCRs fitted into
the low complexity-high symmetry cell, some in the high complexity-low symmetry
cell, only one in the high-high cell and none in the low-low cell. This suggests that in
addition to many products being designed according to these rules, the principles do
not seem to be entirely independent. Based on the results of the first pre-test, VCR
pictures that almost fitted in certain cells of the design were slightly adjusted using
computer graphics software (e.g. aspects such as the number and type of buttons or the
display size were changed based on an investigation of the product characteristics that
influenced ratings on the principles in the first pre-test) in order to make them
consistent with specific cells of the design. In order to prevent a confounding influence
of color or shade on preference only darker colored VCRs were included in the stimulus
set (like many electronic products, VCRs tend to be predominantly silver or black).
Furthermore, in order to heighten the robustness of the findings from this experiment,
two operationalizations of stimuli (i.e. VCR products) for each cell in the experimental
design were sought. We succeeded in varying complexity and symmetry relatively
independent from each other, as their correlation was no longer significant in the last
pretest (r 20:31, NS). Through the series of pretests the stimulus set of eight VCR
product designs was developed and finalized for the 2 (low/high complexity) 2
(low/high symmetry) orthogonal factorial design (with two products for each cell).
Procedure
Questionnaires with pictures of eight VCRs (the experimental stimuli) were sent to
respondents homes. They had to indicate their preference for each VCR on a

seven-point scale ranging from little preference to a lot of preference. As in the


pretests presented earlier in this paper, the VCRs were presented in black-and-white,
with four pictures on a page. A preference scale was underneath each picture. Three
different VCR orders were used to minimize order effects on the results.
After indicating their preference for the eight VCRs, respondents indicated the
extent to which several types of product value played a role in their judgments. They
rated the role that aesthetic value, functionalities and quality (i.e. functional product
value), and ergonomic product value had played in their judgments on seven-point
scales with end-points labeled only, ranging from completely no role to a very big
role. The importance of aesthetic value was assessed by asking: Did it play a role in
your judgments whether you find the video recorder aesthetically attractive? (note: all
questions originally appeared in Dutch; approximate English translations appear
here). The importance of functionalities was assessed by means of the question: Did it
play a role in your judgments whether the video recorder seems to have a lot of
functions?. After this, the question followed whether one preferred few functions, an
average number of functions, or many functions on a VCR. The question assessing
importance of quality was: Did it play a role in your judgments whether the video
recorder gives a high quality impression?. The importance of ergonomic value was
assessed by asking: Did it play a role in your judgments whether the video recorder
seems to be easy to operate?. Note that we used words such as seems instead of is,
as otherwise many people might answer that they are unable to judge that aspect on
the basis of only seeing the products appearance. Furthermore, it accentuated that the
questions were about the judgments that subjects had just made and not about a VCR
purchase in general. Three different orders of these product value questions were used.
Finally, respondents were asked whether their household possessed a VCR.
Subjects received a small gift to thank them for their time and effort.
Results
Of the 431 questionnaires returned (84 percent), 422 were completely filled in and were
used for data analysis. The VCR pictures and their mean preference scores are in
Figure 1. The relative importance of the two visual design principles in determining
preference, and the preferred level of each visual design principle (high or low), was
computed by means of conjoint analysis. The two visual design principles were found
to have a significant influence on preference, as indicated by the high correlation
between observed and estimated preferences (conjoint analysis: Pearsons R 0:91,
p , 0:001). Complexity was most important in subjects product evaluations. This can
be seen in comparing the averaged importance scores, which is the difference between
the highest and lowest utility score and gives insight into the relative influence of the
factors. The average importance for complexity is 67.14, for symmetry it is 32.39. In
general, respondents preferred low complexity and high symmetry in a VCR; the mean
utility for (high) complexity is 20.58, for (high) symmetry it is 0.18.
Many subjects indicated that aesthetics played an important role for them in
indicating their VCR design preferences (M 5:42 on a seven-point scale, SD 1:66),
ease of use was also considered important by many (M 5:07, SD 1:97), quality
played a role in their judgments (M 4:84, SD 1:69), number of functions scored a
bit lower (M 3:74, SD 2:03). These mean values differ significantly from each
other (repeated measures ANOVA: F 64:96, p , 0:001). Post hoc comparisons show

Product value
importance

1445

EJM
49,9/10

that all means significantly differ from each other, except for quality and ease of use,
and ease of use and aesthetics. Correlations between the different value types range
from 2 0.311 (p , 0:001) for aesthetic value and ease of use, to 0.340 (p , 0:001) for
aesthetic value and quality impression. This means for example that for someone who
valued ease of use, aesthetics tended to be less important.

1446

Test of the hypotheses


The influence of the type of product value that is important to subjects on their
preference for symmetry and complexity in a VCR design was tested by means of
regression analysis. The dependent variable was the utility for symmetry or the utility
for complexity (as derived from the conjoint analysis), the independent variables were
the four product value type importance scores. The variance explained in the
regression with symmetry as dependent variable is 2.3 percent (p , 0:05), and with
complexity as dependent variable 16.1 percent (p , 0:001). Although linear relations
are posed in the hypotheses, relations between product value importance and preferred
amount of symmetry and complexity may also be curvilinear. For some hypotheses,
there was not much literature available as a basis for prediction. To get as clear an
insight as possible into the relation between product value importance and design
preference, we therefore looked at whether or not adding quadratic terms for the
product value types to the model (in order to test for curvilinear effects) significantly
increases the amount of variance explained. Adding quadratic terms for the product
value types does not give a significant increase in R 2 for symmetry, but significantly
increases the R 2 for complexity to 18.1 percent (F change 4; 409 2:49, p , 0:05).
This increase is due to a curvilinear influence of ease of use importance scores (see the
hypothesis test concerning ease of use below).
As we expected, the preference (i.e. utility) for symmetry and complexity was found
to differ depending on the product value to which consumers paid attention. Figure 2
gives an overview of the significant (linear) influences of the importance scores for the
types of product value on the utility for symmetry and complexity.
When aesthetic value was more important for subjects, they more strongly disliked
complexity in a VCR design (b 20:249, p , 0:001). This provides support for H1.

Figure 2.
An overview of significant
influences of product
value importance on
preference for symmetry
and complexity

Although there was a statistical trend (b 0:094, p 0:09), the importance of


aesthetic value had no significant influence on preference for symmetry. This means
that the second hypothesis was not supported, despite there being at least a marginal
indication of the relationship.
H3 is supported: when subjects paid more attention to functionalities, they showed
more preference for complex-looking VCRs (b 0:303, p , 0:001). When including
interaction terms of functionalities with the dummy variables for the number of
functions that people prefer (a small number, a medium number, or a large number), one
sees that this finding only holds for people who want a medium or large number of
functions on a VCR. The interaction of the functionalities importance score with the
dummy variable indicating a preference for a small as opposed to a medium or large
number of functions was significant (b 20:35, p , 0:001), while the interaction of the
functionalities importance score with the dummy variable indicating a preference for a
large as opposed to a small or medium number of functions was not (b 0:09, NS). The
mean utility for complexity for subjects for whom functionalities are important
(functionality importance score .4) and who want a medium or large number of
functions is positive, namely 0.10 (while in general the utility for complexity is negative).
We did not expect symmetry to influence the perception of functionality and therefore
did not posit a hypothesis about this. Indeed, there was no significant influence of the
importance of functionalities on the utility for symmetry (b 0:018, NS).
The importance of a high quality impression of a VCR did not significantly
influence the utility for symmetry (b 20:046, NS); this means that H4 was not
supported. The importance of a high quality impression did influence the utility for
complexity (b 0:108, p , 0:05), supporting H5. Subjects who attach more
importance to product quality show more preference for complexity in a design.
Note, however, that the mean utility for complexity for subjects that paid attention to
quality (quality importance score . 4) is still negative (2 0.51), but somewhat less
negative than for the other subjects.
We did not posit a hypothesis concerning the influence of symmetry on perceived
ease of use, as we could imagine both a positive and a negative influence and there was
nothing about this in the literature. The influence proved to be negative, in that the
utility for symmetry diminished when ease of use was more important to subjects
(b 20:106, p , 0:05). This indicates that low symmetry designs are preferred by
people for whom ease of use is important. H6, positing that the importance of ease of
use is negatively related to the utility for visual complexity in a design, is supported
(b 20:167, p 0:001). Thus, when ease of use was more important in subjects
preference judgments, low symmetry and low complexity were more preferred. But, as
mentioned above, the quadratic term for ease of use significantly increased the R 2 for
the analysis with utility for complexity as a dependent variable. There is an inverse
U-shaped relation between the importance of ease of use and a preference for
complexity. However, the influence of ease of use importance on preference for
complexity differs depending on the number of functions that people prefer: a small,
medium, or large number. When interactions between the importance of ease of use
and two dummy variables respectively indicating a preference for a small as
opposed to a medium or large number of functions, and a preference for a large as
opposed to a small or medium number of functions are added (both are significant),
adding quadratic terms to this model does not significantly increase the amount of

Product value
importance

1447

EJM
49,9/10

variance explained anymore. For subjects wanting a small number of functions,


preference for complexity decreases when ease of use is more important. For subjects
wanting a large number of functions, preference for complexity increases when ease of
use is more important. As the number of subjects that want a large number of
functions is relatively small, the overall effect points to a negative relation between
importance of ease of use and preference for complexity.

1448
Managerial and research implications
This study investigated the influence of the visual design/organization principles of
complexity and symmetry on consumers product preferences. People generally
preferred a VCR that exhibited low complexity and high symmetry, which agrees with
findings in the literature. The amount of visual complexity influenced the perception of
all types of product value, namely aesthetics, functionalities, quality, and ease of use.
This was in agreement with our hypotheses. However, the amount of variance
explained by the importance of the product value types in the preference for symmetry
was only small. Only the importance of ease of use influenced preference for symmetry.
This means that symmetry does not significantly influence the perception of aesthetics,
functions, and quality according to our study. We indeed expected importance of
functionalities to not have an influence on preference for symmetry. However, we
expected importance of quality to have a positive influence on preference for symmetry
(although there were no findings on this relationship in the literature). For aesthetic
value, a preference for symmetry is found in the literature (e.g. Berlyne, 1971; Jacobsen
and Hofel, 2002; Lauer, 1979). These findings were based on artificial stimuli and
human faces. Our study indicates that these findings may not transfer to products;
although there was a marginal influence of importance of aesthetic value on preference
for symmetry, this influence is much smaller than can be expected from the existing
literature. Further research is needed to replicate this finding for other kinds of
products.
The effect of symmetry and visual complexity on consumers preferences differed
depending on the product value that was important to these consumers in making their
preference judgments: aesthetics, functionalities, quality, or ease of use. This adds to
the existing literature that has primarily focused on aesthetic value in assessing
consumer preference for design. Since the appearance of a product can also influence
the perceived functional and ergonomic value as well as the perceived quality of a
product, managers overseeing new product development are well served by taking
these effects into account. In this study, preference for symmetry was found to decrease
when ease of use was more important to subjects. Preference for complexity increased
when functionalities and quality were more important, and decreased when aesthetics
and ease of use were more important to subjects (see Figure 2). These findings
illustrate that it is beneficial to emphasize the most important type of product value in
the development of a product (design) and its appearance. It is difficult if not
impossible to optimize a products appearance for each type of product value
simultaneously, as the best design differs according to product value. For example,
when aesthetics are important consumers prefer a less complex product, while more
complexity is preferred when functional value (i.e. functionalities and quality) is
important to them. Therefore it is useful to focus on the most important or beneficial
product value in designing a product, without ignoring the other types of product

value. Of course care should be taken that a product is not perceived negatively with
respect to the other product value types. When the main type of value that is important
for the product and the desired target market is emphasized during product
development, the design can be attuned to this, leading to a better communication of
product advantage to consumers.
Specific implications for practice on the amount of visual complexity and symmetry
to apply in determining the appearance of a product follow from the results of this
study. When aesthetics are important to consumers, a product low in complexity will
be preferred. Although in the literature a preference for symmetry is indicated for
human faces and artificial stimuli, we did not find a significantly higher preference for
symmetry in design with higher importance of aesthetics (although there was a
statistical trend). When consumers want a medium or large number of functions, a
more complex looking product will be preferred. This sounds logical, as visual
complexity indicates functional complexity for consumers (see Norman, 1988).
However, one has to take care to not design a product so as to exhibit too much visual
complexity as this study showed that people in general dislike visual complexity. It
was shown that when product quality is important to consumers, they dislike complex
designs to a lesser extent. Finally, less symmetry in a product design was found to
heighten an impression of ease of use. Indeed, one can imagine that different buttons
can be better distinguished from each other when not arranged symmetrically, as
symmetry would create uniformity in button shape and placement (see Hypotheses
section). The relation between importance of ease of use and preference for complexity
differs with the number of functions that people prefer. When people desire a small
number of functions, preference for complexity decreases with importance of ease of
use. When people desire a large number of functions, preference for complexity
increases with importance of ease of use. In our study, most subjects wanted a small or
medium number of functions on a VCR (small number: 28 percent, medium number:
55.7 percent, large number, 15.9 percent). The preferred number of functions, and thus
the amount of complexity that people prefer, may differ by product category and
country.
We expected that subjects would prefer more symmetry when aesthetic value and a
quality impression were important to them, but did not find support for this. A possible
explanation might be that for black box electronic products such as VCRs, symmetry
is only varied by buttons and surface elements, and the overall form stays rectangular
and thereby essentially symmetric. It may be that for products that differ more
strongly from each other in their overall shape than do VCRs, an effect of symmetry on
aesthetic value and on quality perception will be found (supporting H2 and H4).
A limitation of this research is that only one product category was investigated. We
used only one product category due to the requirements in filling an orthogonal
factorial design (needed in order to assess independently the influence of symmetry
and complexity). However, the current findings will likely generalize to other black
box electronic products such as hi-fi stereo equipment, DVD players and recorders,
and maybe also products such as microwave ovens. Another limitation, following from
the use of a factorial design, is that we restricted our investigation to low and high
symmetry and complexity designs only. Including a medium level would have
substantially increased the number of stimuli needed, and thus both greatly expanded
the difficulty of filling out the experimental design, as well as make the rating task

Product value
importance

1449

EJM
49,9/10

1450

overly burdensome for the consumer panel subjects. However, including a medium
level would have provided a more exact insight into the level of symmetry and
complexity consumers prefer. There will be limitations on the positive effect of
symmetry and negative effect of complexity, in that complete symmetry and lack of
complexity may be deemed too boring (e.g. Berlyne, 1971; Murdoch and Flurscheim,
1983; Schmitt and Simonson, 1997) to be produced as a marketable design, and there
will be a limit on the amount of complexity of a design intended to be used effectively
by people. However, we used realistic products as stimuli, so that this can be regarded
as a study of the utility of visual complexity and symmetry to consumers within a
realistic range. Within boundaries normally used in product design, the relations
summarized in Figure 2 are expected to hold. Replication across a wider range of
products will be needed to further verify these relationships. However, this work is
another necessary step in the effort to better understand these important (and
challenging to research) relationships between product value and design principles.
The amount of variance in the utility for symmetry that is explained by the
importance of the different product value types is rather low (although significant).
The conjoint analysis showed that symmetry has much less influence on design
preference than does complexity, which might explain that only two of the product
value types influenced utility for symmetry. As mentioned above, symmetry might be
more influential for products that differ more strongly in their overall shape than
black box electronic products such as VCRs. Furthermore, future research might
identify the influence of other visual design principles, such as proportion and unity
(e.g. Berlyne, 1971; Hekkert, 1995; Lauer, 1979; Raghubir and Greenleaf, 2006; Veryzer,
1993), on perception of the different types of product value.
Conclusion
In conclusion, these findings may help product managers and those involved in new
product development in understanding and researching the influences of visual design
principles and product value types on customer reactions to products. Given the
paucity of research that bears directly on the relationships between product value
perception and design principles, it is hoped that the study presented here will add to
the foundation of design research, and serve those charged with giving form to
products by providing an empirical basis for design decisions.
References
Arnheim, R. (1974), Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, University of
California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Berlyne, D.E. (1971), Aesthetics and Psychobiology, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, NY.
Bloch, P.H. (1995), Seeking the ideal form: product design and consumer response, Journal of
Marketing, Vol. 59 No. 3, pp. 16-29.
Creusen, M.E.H. (2006), How to signal quality by means of product appearance, in Avlonitis,
G.J., Papavassiliou, N. and Papastathopoulou, P. (Eds), Proceedings of the 35th EMAC
Conference, EMAC, Athens.
Creusen, M.E.H. and Schoormans, J.P.L. (2005), The different roles of product appearance in
consumer choice, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 63-81.
Crilly, N., Moultrie, J. and Clarkson, P.J. (2004), Seeing things: consumer response to the visual
domain in product design, Design Studies, Vol. 25, pp. 547-77.

Dumaine, B. (1991), Design that sells and sells and . . ., Fortune, Vol. 11, March, pp. 56-61.
Garber, L.L. Jr, Burke, R.R. and Jones, J.M. (2000), The role of package color in consumer
purchase consideration and choice, Working Paper Series, Rep. No. 00-104, Marketing
Science Institute, Cambridge, MA.
Gombrich, E.H. (1979), The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, Cornell
University Press, Ithaca, NY.
Hekkert, P. and Leder, H. (2008), Product aesthetics, in Schifferstein, H.N.J. (Ed.), Product
Experience, Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp. 259-85.
Hekkert, P., Peper, C.E. and van Wieringen, P.C.W. (1994), The effect of verbal instruction and
artistic background on the aesthetic judgment of rectangles, Empirical Studies of the Arts,
Vol. 12, pp. 185-203.
Hekkert, P.P.M. (1995), Artful Judgements: A Psychological Inquiry into Aesthetic Preference for
Visual Pattern, Delft University of Technology, Delft.
Jacobsen, T. and Hofel, L. (2002), Aesthetic judgments of novel graphic patterns: analyses of
individual judgments, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 95 No. 3, pp. 755-66.
Kotler, P. (2003), Marketing Management, 11th ed., Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Lauer, D.A. (1979), Design Basics, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, NY.
Lewalski, Z.M. (1988), Product Esthetics: An Interpretation for Designers, Design & Development
Engineering Press, Carson City, NV.
Loebach, B. (1976), Industrial Design: Grundlagen der Industrieproduktgestaltung, Verlag Karl
Thiemig, Munich.
Lorenz, C. (1986), The Design Dimension, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
Muller, W. (2001), Order and Meaning in Design, Lemma, Utrecht.
Murdoch, P. and Flurscheim, C.H. (1983), Form, in Flurscheim, C.H. (Ed.), Industrial Design in
Engineering, The Design Council, Worcester, pp. 105-31.
Norman, D.A. (1988), The Psychology of Everyday Things, Basic Books, New York, NY.
Pilditch, J. (1976), Talk about Design, Barrie and Jenkins, London.
Raghubir, P. and Greenleaf, E.A. (2006), Ratios in proportion: what should the shape of the
package be?, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 70 No. 2, pp. 95-107.
Rentschler, I., Juttner, M., Unzicker, A. and Landis, T. (1999), Innate and learned components of
human visual preference, Current Biology, Vol. 9 No. 13, pp. 665-71.
Rhodes, G. (2006), The evolutionary psychology of facial beauty, Annual Review of Psychology,
Vol. 57, pp. 199-226.
Roy, R. (1994), Can the benefits of good design be quantified?, Design Management Journal,
Vol. 5 No. 2, pp. 9-17.
Schmitt, B.H. and Simonson, A. (1997), Marketing Aesthetics: The Strategic Management of
Brands, Identity, and Image, The Free Press, New York, NY.
Thackara, J. (1997), Winners: How Successful Companies Innovate by Design, BIS, Amsterdam.
Veryzer, R.W. (1993), Aesthetic response and the influence of design principles on product
preferences, in McAlister, L. and Rothschild, M.L. (Eds), Advances in Consumer Research,
Association for Consumer Research, Provo, UT, pp. 224-9.
Veryzer, R.W. (1995), The place of product design and aesthetics in consumer research,
in Kardes, F.R. and Sujan, M. (Eds), Advances in Consumer Research, Association for
Consumer Research, Provo, UT, pp. 641-5.

Product value
importance

1451

EJM
49,9/10

Veryzer, R.W. and Hutchinson, J.W. (1998), The influence of unity and prototypicality on
aesthetic responses to new product designs, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 24 No. 4,
pp. 374-94.
Yamamoto, M. and Lambert, D.R. (1994), The impact of product aesthetics on the evaluation of
industrial products, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol. 11 No. 4, pp. 309-24.

1452

About the authors


Marielle E.H. Creusen is Assistant Professor of Consumer Research at the Faculty of Industrial
Design Engineering, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. She received her MSc in
economic psychology from Tilburg University and her PhD from Delft University of
Technology. She has published in journals such as Journal of Product Innovation Management,
International Journal of Research in Marketing, and Advances in Consumer Research. Her
research interests include consumer research methods in product development and the influence
of product appearance factors on consumer product preference. Marielle E.H. Creusen is the
corresponding author and can be contacted at: m.e.h.creusen@tudelft.nl
Robert W. Veryzer, at the time of the research, was an Associate Professor of Marketing/New
Product Development in the Lally School of Management & Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute, Troy, New York, USA and a Visiting Research Professor at Delft University of
Technology. He holds a PhD from the University of Florida and an MBA from Michigan State
University. Dr Veryzers articles appear in leading professional journals such as Journal of
Consumer Research, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Design Management
Journal/Review, and Advances in Consumer Research. His current research interests include
product design, new product development, and radical innovation.
Jan P.L. Schoormans is Professor of Consumer Research at the Faculty of Industrial Design
Engineering, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. He received his MSc and PhD in
economic psychology from Tilburg University. He has published in journals such as Journal of
Product Innovation Management, Design Studies, International Journal of Research in Marketing,
Journal of Economic Psychology, and Advances in Consumer Research. His current research
interests include consumer research methods in the product development process.

To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: reprints@emeraldinsight.com


Or visit our web site for further details: www.emeraldinsight.com/reprints