What Is Aesthetics?
Aesthetics comes from the Greek word for perceiver or sensitive. Aesthetics is the theory and study of beauty. As the old saying goes, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Everything we experience in life shapes our idea of beauty—essentially, what is pleasing is a learned response. Each and every one of us goes through cultural training—intentional or unintentional—that forms our ideas of what is aesthetically pleasing. In philosophical terms, aesthetics is also the study of sensory or "sensori-emotional" value, a meaning that refers to the sensibilities of perception, or the idea of intuition. Essentially, how something is viewed and perceived by a person causes them to place a particular value judgment upon it.
Aesthetics in design has to do with the deliberate arrangement of elements—shape, color, typography, etc.—in a way that appeals to the senses and/or emotions. It is an expression of taste, which is essentially a preference. Taste is personal, but also subject to social pressures. A particular group declares something to be in "good" or "bad" taste, and if a person is part of that group, they tend to agree with the group opinion. Why this all matters is that at the heart of a designer's work is encoding and decoding messages to move a particular group of people or target audience to do something. This encoding and decoding means translating ideas from client speak into audience speak, or translating client goals into visual imagery—essentially, translating information from one format into the other. Therefore, designers must understand the tastes of the target audience and then leverage aesthetics to mirror those preferences. So to come full circle, when people say that design is all about surface appearance, they are missing the deeper understanding that those surfaces are created to form aesthetic or emotional and sensory connections.
Not Personal Preferences
When designers solve visual problems, they must reach past their own personal aesthetic preferences to tap into those of their audience. One of the biggest challenges a designer faces is helping their client do the same thing. This is why all design decisions must be argued as appropriate for a specific context, not just that it looks and feels good or "works." That may be true, but this opens the door to endless subjective critique by the client. Traditionally that is something that does not result in approval, intact, of a designer's original well-considered concept.
In this way, the effective use of aesthetic choices can make a design resonate deeply with a target audience. This resonance creates an emotional connection. For example, the cover of a baking book incorporates rich autumn colors and a large central image of a pie. The target audience is drawn to the book, recalling festive and warm family gatherings, and buys the book. It's a simple example, but, a compelling and useful one. When the same autumn palette is then applied to the packaging for other ancillary products, the connection is made over and over again.