I’m sitting in a darkened conference room in Microsoft’s vast campus in Redmond, Washington, talking to a team of software developers as they flash images from their latest operating system onto a wall-size screen. We’re not talking about the usual Microsoft subjects—the company’s prodigious market share, the value of its stock, or the number of lines of code in the latest version of Office.
We’re talking about beauty.
Illustration by Leo Espinosa
The Microsoft team is showing off some new tools for managing digital photos stored in ordinary home computers. Instead of spreading the photos across the screen as if they were on a light table, the software organizes them like shirts on a dry cleaner’s motorized rack. As the photos approach, they grow larger and then shrink back down as they revert to the bottom of the stack (where they are still partially visible). It’s a delightful effect, the kind of visual trick you want to see again and again. And it’s a surprising departure for Microsoft.
For decades Bill Gates and company have made products that emphasize function over form, leaving the aesthetics to rival Apple Computer. Such niceties never seemed worth the trouble. Apple’s elegant Macintosh operating system may have elevated software design to an art form, but it attracted only a tiny fraction of the audience that gravitated to Microsoft’s flagship Windows operating system.
Skeptics might view Microsoft’s new conversion to the cult of high-tech beauty as just another case of following the latest trends for fashion’s sake. Those same cynics might dismiss dancing photographs as mere eye candy. In the world of Microsoft, software has traditionally turned personal computers into an extension of an office environment, where they are used for such utilitarian tasks as crunching numbers, tracking billable hours, and sending memos. But a new awareness of digital artistry is emerging, thanks to research by cognitive scientists that shows the extent to which aesthetically rich experiences enhance our mental faculties. Eye candy turns out to be nutritious after all.
The connection between cognitive science and software design dates back to the birth of the graphic interface in the late 1970s. Researchers studying the brain’s attention and memory systems noticed that our visual memory was different from our textual memory. Our primate ancestors learned to use their sense of sight to navigate complex spaces millions of years ago, but humans have been reading words for only a few thousand years. So software designers hit upon a way to tap into those innate visual skills: Represent commands and data on-screen with visual icons, not strings of text.
Something comparable is afoot today with software aesthetics. This time brain research is focusing on our emotional responses as well as our attention and memory systems. Contemplating beautiful objects puts us in a good mood—or what brain scientists describe as “a state of positive affect.” These nice feelings change the way the brain processes information. If you’re under stress or feeling beaten down by your environment, your brain hunkers down and focuses on details and the body’s most pressing needs: physical safety, hunger, and so on. But if you’re in a relaxed, cheerful mood, your brain is likely to enter into a creative, exploratory state, seeking out new connections and new experiences in your environment.
“I started out as an engineer, and I thought that what was really important was that something worked,” says longtime interface guru Don Norman of the Nielsen Norman Group, whose latest book, Emotional Design, describes his conversion to aesthetics. “Appearance—how could that matter? And yet for some reason, I would still buy attractive things, even if they didn’t work as well as the less attractive ones. This puzzled me. In the last two years, I’ve finally come to understand that it’s a result of the extremely tight coupling between emotion and cognition. Emotion is about judging the world, and cognition is about understanding. They can’t be separated.”
This is not a matter of superficial sex appeal. Beautiful design has an effect on our mental states—we think differently under the sway of beauty. “The brain has been wired through evolution to be attracted by good things,” Norman says. “When we see things that are pleasurable, when we’re enjoying ourselves, it makes us more willing to explore, more imaginative. It’s part of our wiring.”