Why is visual appeal important and what is the line that separates unattractive from aesthetic? These are only few of the thousands of questions regarding one of the most debating topic throughout the history of art - the perception of aesthetics.
I’ve been a visual artist and a book cover designer for almost two decades now and despite the unavoidable experience that I have gained or my personal accomplishments in the field, I still find myself struggling with defining the aesthetics in a satisfying or comprehensible way. What I learned so far, especially after 12 years in book cover design business and over 500 projects worldwide, is that the visual appeal can vary a lot, bending over cultural and social backgrounds, as well as geographical environment or context. Book covers and magazines, for instance, have different visual values in different areas on the world map. While north American publishing industry appreciates bold typography, vibrant colors and straightforward message for their target audience, Scandinavian’s approach leans towards subtle solution with light typography, often hued and saturated, almost dreamlike minimal and certainly wrapped in a mysterious kind of feel. In Russia, the visual context has been elaborated and enhanced during the Soviet era, with minimal idea behind and quite balanced between serif sans typography and limited color pallets they use. Trying to win the American market with an authentic Scandinavian design style is practically impossible, and vice versa. We can see this pattern repeat in other visual medias as well, posters, films, music, applied art, etc.
When I was at the beginning of my book cover design career, I faced many issues providing a satisfying content for most of my clients. Minimal visuals that I used to animate the American publishers with have often been rejected and described as dull, visually unattractive and vague. North European clients described my bold and colorful work as too aggressive and extreme. And this was the point when I started asking myself questions and eventually improved my skills in recognizing the meaning of values in different social environments. What I learned so far is the visual art can be aesthetic, but not necessarily attractive for specific cultural values. And throughout the history these values have been changing and morphing into various directions and meanings, always connected with rises and falls of civilizations and their influences on other cultures around the world.
We must note another clash of the aesthetic perception between scholars and artistic illiterates. With learned skills, practice and knowledge of art, scholars have been able to discuss the technique on individual artistic approach, and understand the creative process behind. They can easily determine whether the observed subject has artistic values or indicates a typical mediocre content with no significant attributes. On the other hand, artistically illiterate people are often incapable of differentiation between art and inferior quality content. Prehistoric paintings in Caves of Altamira in Spain or Picasso’s work, for instance, mean nothing to my father or many of my friends, and they look like child’s drawings to them. This is one of the reasons why professions like art director or curator are crucial for setting the standards, extracting and putting the values first.
Aesthetic values are not set in the stone, they are gradually changing and adjusting to the actual social and cultural conditions. As a book cover designer, I must recognize those values and use best of my skills to calibrate the standards with general expectations. As an artist, nevertheless, I don’t have to. And this is a contradiction every designer, every artist, in any field of art have to deal with. Only for a reason a designer does both, visually repelling and very appealing work. An artist doesn’t care.
author Ivan Bjørn
Book cover designer and contemporary visual artist. Over 500 publications, prints, book covers and artworks worldwide. www.nadavisual.com