Thursday, February 12, 2009

in the eye of the beholder

So I'm looking for a second car. Our family owns a CR-V, which is perfect for our little foursome. But, increasingly, the world seems like it would be si
gnificantly easier to handle if we had a second car. A commuter. One with a backseat in which I can tak
e my 5 and 2 year old to various Seattle places while mom gets going hither and thither. All of which leads to Ed.

Ed and I worked together in the Advanced Planning department at Nissan/Infiniti, nearly 5 years ago now, though both of us have since moved on. He is still one of the smartest people I know, not just about cars (which he is), but about consumer habits and human tendencies. (there you go, Ed, no more compliments for another 5 years.) So it seemed only fitting that I ask Ed his opinion about what car might fit my aforementioned needs, and hopefully doesn't end in the word "Civic" (no slight to Honda - as noted, we drive & love their products, I just happen to be a car-personality guy and Honda isn't first on my list from that standpoint.)

Today, Ed continued our ongoing conversation by proposing Nissan's Cube to me. When you look at the import, it's hard not to notice the asymmetrical rear window which wraps around the passenger side of the car. The website claims: "symmetry is so last year." I'm undecided on the design choice, but it led to a great conversation with Ed about nature, symmetry, balance, and perception.

Here's the gist of it. Ed claimed that nature is not symmetrical. He recalled going for a hike to the top of a mountain in San Diego in which he looked out over the majesty of the area and found the view interrupted by the straight lines and right angles of a casino. This was indicative to him of the great truth that nature is asymmetrical. I tried to argue with him. Poor architecture, more than a solid proof point. I pointed out the cyclical nature of seasons, of day following night following day, and of an annual trip we all take once around the sun. Like clockwork. But Ed raised the counterpoint that those were examples of balance, not symmetry.

Symmetry is roughly defined as: the quality of being made up of exactly similar parts facing each other or around an axis.

So, he had me there.

True symmetry, he pointed out, is creepy to look at. I recall hearing once that symmetry in faces is actually what draws us to them. It's why Denzel is "Denzel", a People magazine most beautiful person and Forrest Whitaker is simply a brilliant actor. (the audacity! simply a brilliant Oscar winning actor - my apologies, Mr. Whitaker). I looked at some facial symmetry fun, but then did my own experiments using Photo Booth. It wasn't horrible, but I can se how it isn't quite the state of "perfection" we think of.

So, I changed my hypothesis because I could see that Ed was going to be all "science-y" and to the letter about this. The new hypothesis was that any conclusions about symmetry in nature must take into account the human propensity to see symmetry where there is asymmetry. Let's call it "Perceived Symmetry". We, as humans, are attracted most to the things we perceive as symmetrical. It's natural to do so. It explains the beauty of snowflakes, butterfly wings, the majesty of Mt. Rainier.

It also explains a lot of artistic and creative design choices. If we didn't perceive Michelangelo's David to be symmetrical, we might not be quite as fascinated by his beauty. Imagine David with a scrawny arm, or eyes like Marty Feldman. You can't because it ruins the perfection we associate with that work. The glorious iPhone is shaped to symmetric delight, as are most of Apple's award-winning designs. Even looking around my desk, the lovelier items are designed with a sense of symmetry. SIGG water bottle, Swingline stapler, desk lamp.

The point here is that to make a design choice which is asymmetrical is one that can be used very effectively. But I believe it is counter-natural. Meaning, beauty is typically found in perceived symmetry. However, what what would Marilyn Monroe's beautiful face be without that amazing mole on her lower left cheek? Or Van Gogh's single white iris in a field of blue. As Ed points out, "artificial things often become endearing in their asymmetry because they become less intimidating." A slight imperfection here or there gives something a touch of character, shows that there really is no such thing as perfection (as that's a subjective measure), and makes the object (or person) more human through its quality of being juuuuust off. And here, I'm thinking of the beautiful design of Karim Rashid's Yum Bowl, amongst others.

So, where are we left after all this? Without conclusion, I'm afraid, but with an interesting consideration of the notion of perception, and the unsatisfying concession that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Even in a rear windshield.

1 comment:

Ann Marie said...

Love this post. And now I'm totally intrigued by the Cube.

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