Thesis Evaluation

In regards to my topic “Joyful Design” I was searching for a thesis that copes with design methods with focus on empathic design, since I could not find works that where specifically related to the term of “joyful design”. Throughout my research I took notice of the master’s thesis “Emotional intelligence in graphic design: Creating a resource to facilitate empathic practices” by Luisa María Burgos Barrera from Iowa State University. The thesis was published in 2020 and focuses on analysing design approaches that have empathy as a key component in their design process. The outcome was a proposal of a digital tool that designers can use to explore their emotional intelligence, which acts as an important entry point to empathy.

Emotional intelligence in graphic design

Creating a resource to facilitate empathic practices 

Luisa María Burgos Barrera

Iowa State University

Graphic Design


Level of Design
The thesis was handed in as a PDF document only. Throughout my research on this thesis I could not find any further physical documentation. The PDF document is well structured but does not show much creative implementations. It focuses on a rather basic presentation of content.

Around 90% of the thesis consists of a basic text layout. Few images were inserted to demonstrate design examples or diagrams. The appendix of the document introduces the practical approach of a website design proposal. Even though the practical work enhances the level of design, the form of the presentation could have been improved.

Degree of innovation
Throughout my research on “joyful design” which led me to the topic of “empathic design” I encountered another master’s thesis named “The empathy challenge. How to become an empathic graphic designer” by Sara Bengts (Department of Graphic Design, Aalto University School of Art and Design). The work has been published five years before in October 2015 and dedicated its research to a very similar research question. The output as well was an application to enhance designers ability for empathy.

In regards to empathic design, there are some resources, such as books, videos, and websites, addressed to empathic behaviour and how a person can nurture it. But few of them provide detailed instructions for how to exercise empathy through specific actions. However, since Sara Bengts already addressed that topic five years before, the degree of innovation in Luisa María Burgos Barreras master’s thesis decreases.

Not only that both of them analyzed tools to enhance empathy in design and developed an application for designers to practice empathy—also, both of them did the research with focus on the field of graphic design.

To a big part the thesis consists of theoretical research that has been put together in a comprehensible narrative. However, throughout the theoretical part, little side projects are included to demonstrate the ideas and findings of empathic design. Those side projects were initiated and implemented by the author. Such as the social media project @coronahumans which was initiated to explore and express empathy through image making. Those examples state that the author is able to connect her own thoughts and ideas to the research topic in a practical way. Also, the practical outcome shows the ability to independently transfer ideas of the research into a practical approach/application. 

Still, the topic in general was already discussed in a master’s thesis in 2015 which has also to be considered in the degree of independence, since this Sara Bengts thesis could have acted as sort of a guideline. Even though many individual approaches still can be found in this thesis.

Outline and Structure
The outline and structure follows a very basic and comprehensible principle:

List of Figures, List of Tables, Acknowledgements, Abstract

The page numbering of “list of figures”, “list of tables”, “acknowledgements” and the “abstract” starts with roman characters to differentiate from the main content which gets structured by latin page numbers. This gives a well structured overview in the table of contents.

Chapter 1: Introduction

The introduction gives a basic overview on the term of design and its historical development and significance, which leads to the present, where nowadays empathy happens to be a fundamental skill of a designer. The following Chapters—Chapter 2 and Chapter 3—will give a good overview about “the known”.

Chapter 2: Literature Review
Digs deeper into philosophical as well as psychological aspects. It totally makes sense to focus on philosophical as well as psychological aspects, which happen to be the base of empathy/empathic design, before in the next chapter the focus will be set on the design part.

Chapter 3: Precedent
Focus on the connection between empathy and design. Chapter 3 analyzes current design projects and ends with a self initiated “mini-project”, based on the previous insights.

Chapter 4: Methodology
Analysis of different design tool kits, followed by an extensive conclusion.

Chapter 5: Results
Proposal of a solution for a website, based on the previous research.

Chapter 6: Summary and Discussion

The thesis ends with an extensive summary which ends with an outlook for future directions in empathic design.

Degree of communication
In general the thesis follows a very good structure. Content-based, the thesis covers the main issues around empathic design—philosophical aspects, psychological aspects as well as design methods—in great details. However, the introduction could have been improved in terms of communication—only the goal gets outlined, but a clear statement of used research methods could have been mentioned already at the beginning. At some points the use of visualizations, to transport certain insights even more comprehensible, is lacking.

Scope of the work
The work includes an extensive theoretical research. In between mini projects which illustrate findings have been included too, which gives a great practical addition. The main practical output of the thesis however lacks a bit in detail and could have been improved in terms of argumentation. To a huge part only screenshots of the outcome (website) have been put into the last chapter, with only brief explanation.

Orthography and Accuracy
I did not detect any mistakes in terms of orthography. Also in terms of citations the work seems to be very accurate.

The author made balanced use of primary literature and web sources. Noticeable in terms of used primary literature is that only a few where recently published (2018—2020). Most of the primary literature was published between 1979 and 2010. More recent content was taken from web sources. The topics in the selected literature ranged from design history, design studies/methodic up to social psychology, neurobiological and philosophical objectives.

Joyful Design

Symbolic Meaning

As mentioned in my last blog post, symbolic meaning acts as one of the most important attributes of product attachment and can be considered as an important factor for positive design. For a better understanding I wanted to do further research on the term of symbolic meaning, outlined in the following text.

Symbolic meaning refers to the image and the associations that spring to mind in regard to a specific object/product. Objects can then act as symbols, providing personal meaning as well as communicating (the owner’s) personal characteristics to others. Those meaning that we attach to objects directly influence how we feel about objects and how we assess them. Researches developed various terms to describe this phenomenon of symbolic meaning, including meaning [1], personal meaning [2], symbolic meaning [3], product meaning [4], linking value [5] and symbolic qualities associated with products. [6]

Symbolic Meaning and User Experience

However, symbolic meaning has many dimensions and another concept strongly related with symbolic meaning is the user experience—user experience refers to the user’s perceptions and responses in regard to their interaction with a system or product (ISO 9241-110, 2010). That comes, because symbolic meanings and associations—dependent on personal interpretation—with a product seem to be an integral part of how users experience a product. Therefore the practice of user experience design has evolved to take into account more experiential aspects of user-product interaction, such as emotions, feelings and meanings. Nowadays many researchers agree that symbolic meaning acts as an important dimension of user experience.[7] Desmet and Heckert identify three levels of product experience [8]:

1) aesthetic pleasure
2) attribution of meaning
happens through cognitive processes such as interpretation, memory retrieval and associations
3) emotional response

Desmet and Heckert state that meaning is related to the personal or symbolic significance of products or the possibility of assigning them personality or other expressive. As an example they mention a Chinese teacup that one of the authors is attached to because it represents his visit to China.

Hassenzahl on the other hand does not explicitly mention symbolic meaning as a component of user experience, but he describes aspects that are closely related. He categorizes the hedonic aspect of user experience as including [9]:
1) stimulation—personal growth, an increase or knowledge and skills
2) identification—self-expression, interaction with relevant others
3) evocation—self-maintenance, memories

Especially identification as well as other hedonic aspects can be seen as part of symbolic meanings.

Symbolic Meaning and Appearance

Symbolic meaning can also be related to a product’s form, appearance and use—that is especially the case in literature linked to Industrial Design. Product semantics there get related to a concern for the cognitive meanings, symbolic functions and cultural histories of form. [10]

Van Rompay gives an overview of studies regarding the relationships between a product’s formal features and symbolic meaning. In his example the rounded form of an object is generally perceived as being secure or emotional. Van Rompay’s conclusion is that meaning is not a fixed property of the world or mind, but results from interactions between individual and environment. One of his studies shows that forms connote different symbolic meanings across cultures. [11]

Symbolic Meaning / Product Meaning and Product Attachment

Product attachment gets best represented by products that have some profound and sustained meaning for users [12]. Already in 1923, Ogden and Richards defined product meaning as the relationship between mind, object and world. Product meaning is generally seen as subjective, suffused with affectivity and usually either utilitarian or symbolic. It has also been stated that a group of individuals have a tendency to make similar inferences about a product, suggesting that symbolic meaning is culturally shared. Symbols are formed by cultural principles, which can be:
— norms
— values
— social categories

Sari Kujala states as example the American flag—the flag may symbolizes freedom or conservative American. [13]

In psychological and sociological literature it gets stated that individuals pay attention to object symbolism mainly because they want to express, maintain or enhance their self-concept—their identity and ideal image of themself. Sociological literature also gives examples of how symbolic meaning has been used to compensate for low self-esteem. [14] Zimmerman adds to sychological and sociological literature that people use products as self-extension—those product then act as an essential part of identity construction for a development of a coherent life story. [15] Mugge adds that people tend to develop a stronger attachment to products where they use them to express and maintain a unique personal identity. [16] In addition to identity, Allen shows by his survey studies that to some extent users form product preferences by evaluating whether their values are represented in product meanings. [17]

Symbolic Meaning and Postmodernity

In ethnosociology a new concept of thinking characterizing postmodernity constituted. Cova states that to satisfy their desire for community, modern individuals seek products and services less for their use value than for their linking value. Linking value results when a product facilitates and supports communion by providing a site, an emblem, the support for integration or recognition, and so forth. Cova states that “the postmodern individual can build an identity for themself with cultural symbols and all possible references (such as plays, exhibitions, films, and books, etc.). Linking value refers to product properties that cause users to experience a feeling of communion.[18] The same idea is presented in the consumer research literature. For example, Belk argues that identity is important not only on an individual level, but also on a collective level involving family group, subcultural and national identities. [19]

“[…] the literature of industrial design suggests that symbolic meaning can arise through memory retrieval and associations (Desmet & Hekkert, 2007) and seems to be one of the determinants of product attachment (Mugge et al., 2008; Schifferstein & Zwartkruis-Pelgrim, 2008). Consumer behavior research shows that symbolic meaning is important to users mainly because they want to maintain, enhance and express their identity and ideal image of themselves. It has been shown that symbolic meaning arises when products support user values (Allen, 2006). The sociological literature suggests that the goal can also be a feeling of communion (Cova, 1997).” —Kujala, S. / Nurkka, P.

Considering all the different definitions and fields of research there are various views of the concept of symbolic meaning. Symbolic meaning—one of the most important attributes of product attachment, especially happiness related symbolic meaning—is something intangible and subjective, but also culturally shared.

Summary of the identified factors of symbolic meaning and the relationship of symbolic meaning to product experience as presented by Desmet and Hekkert (2007). The identified factors overlap, but they describe the nature of phenomenon. [20]


[1] Crilly, N., Good, D., Matravers, D., & Clarkson, P. J. (2008). Design as communication: Exploring the validity and utility of relating intention to interpretation. Design Studies, 29(5), 425-457.

[2] Cupchik, G. C., & Hilscher, M. C. (2008). Holistic perspectives on the design of experience. In H. N. J. Schifferstein & P. Hekkert (Eds.), Product experience (pp. 241-256). Amsterdam, the Netherland: Elsevier.

[3] Desmet, P., & Hekkert, P. (2007). Framework for product experience. International Journal of Design, 1(1), 57-66.

[4] Allen, M. W. (2002). Human values and product symbolism: Do consumers form product preference by comparing the human values symbolized by a product to the human values that they endorse? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(12), 2475-2501

[5] Cova, B. (1997). Community and consumption, towards a definition of the “linking value” of product or services. European Journal of Marketing,31(3/4), 297-316.

[6] Kujala, S. / Nurkka, P. (2012). Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meanin. URL:

[7] ebda.

[8] Desmet, P., & Hekkert, P. (2007). Framework for product experience. International Journal of Design, 1(1), 57-66.

[9] Hassenzahl, M. (2003). The thing and I: Understanding therelationship between user and product. In M. Blythe, C. Overbeeke, A. F. Monk, & P. C. Wright (Eds.), Funology: From usability to enjoyment (pp. 31-42). Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic.

[10] Kujala, S. / Nurkka, P. (2012). Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meanin. URL:

[11] van Rompay, T. J. L. (2008). Product expression: Bridging the gap between the symbolic and the concrete. In H. N. J. Schifferstein & P. Hekkert (Eds.), Product experience (pp. 333-351). Amsterdam, the Netherland: Elsevier.

[12] Mugge, R., Schoormans, J. P. L., & Schifferstein, H. N. J. (2008). Product attachment: Design strategies to stimulate the emotional bonding to products. In H. N. J. Schifferstein & P. Hekkert (Eds.), Product experience (pp. 425-440). Amsterdam, the Netherland: Elsevier.

[13] Kujala, S. / Nurkka, P. (2012). Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meanin. URL:

[14] Allen, M. W. (2002). Human values and product symbolism: Do consumers form product preference by comparing the human values symbolized by a product to the human values that they endorse? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(12), 2475-2501.

[15] Zimmerman, J. (2009). Designing for the self: Making products that help people become the person they desire to be. In Proceedings of the 27th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 395-404). New York, NY: ACM.

[16] Mugge, R., Schoormans, J. P. L., & Schifferstein, H. N. J. (2008). Product attachment: Design strategies to stimulate the emotional bonding to products. In H. N. J. Schifferstein & P. Hekkert (Eds.), Product experience (pp. 425-440). Amsterdam, the Netherland: Elsevier.

[17] Allen, M. W. (2002). Human values and product symbolism: Do consumers form product preference by comparing the human values symbolized by a product to the human values that they endorse? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(12), 2475-2501

[18] Cova, B. (1997). Community and consumption, towards a definition of the “linking value” of product or services. European Journal of Marketing,31(3/4), 297-316.

[19] Belk, R. W. (1988). Possessions and the extended self. Journal of Consumer Research, 15(2), 139-168.

[20] Kujala, S. / Nurkka, P. (2012). Sentence Completion for Evaluating Symbolic Meanin. URL:

Joyful Design 08


Triggering the emotional response of surprise can be an effective practice to create joyful experiences. In the following we will explore design considering surprise—one of the six primary emotions identified by Paul Ekman—with the intention to create a joyful experience.

Joyful experiences often happen to us at moments we do not expect them to happen—sometimes even tiny moments can capture our attention and turn into a memorable and joyful experience. According to Ingrid Fetell Lee those moments can be especially powerful in moments of stress or sadness—turning negative emotions into moments of opportunity/perspective. Those small bursts of joy can have an enormous impact on somebody’s mood. Unforeseen pleasures having the power to shift a bad mood are rooted in the nature of surprise: surprise has the purpose to quickly redirect our attention. [1]

“It acts like a warning bell for the brain, alerting us to a gap between what’s happening in front of us and what we had anticipated […] An unexpected noise or tap in the shoulder brings the mind and senses into a state of sudden vigilance.”—Ingrid Fetell Lee

Some suprises can be threads, but lets focus on the positive ones. If surprises signal opportunity our increased alertness and arousal of the surprise response can prepare us to take advantage of sudden joys. Those tiny moments of joy seem to be of short duration but they can have lasting effects because of their power to support upward spirals of positive emotions. [2]

“Joyful suprises bring our attention away from ourselves and back out into the world, prompting us to approach and engage. They incite curiosity, spur exploration, and increase the chances we’ll interact with others in ways that keep the positive vibes flowing.”—Ingrid Fetell Lee

Surprise acts as a magnet for joy by breaking the monotony of routines.

Even studies show, “that the majority of test subjects of a student population reported positive associations with surprise […] and also that variation in the level of surprise has a direct effect on consumers’ satisfaction. Since impulse purchasing implies an approach behaviour towards a product we can assume a positive connotation of surprise.”—Dorothea Baun, European University Viadrina, Germany [3]

Packaging ideas considering surprise to catch the eye and trigger not only a feeling of curiosity but also a feeling of joy:

Toilet paper rolls by Kazuaki Kawahara [4]
Smirnoff Vodka: “Peel The Bottle” Design & Branding by J. Walter Thompson. [5]

Norwegian Passport by Neue Design Studio [8]

Norways passport design is a sleek and modern approach, which already separates its visual appearance from the rest—but the actual surprise hides inside. The passports pages illustrate in an artistic way the country’s natural wonders. Another surprising and playful element: put them under UV light and day scenes turn into night—the sun turns into moon, northern lights and a hidden text appear.

[1]Fetell Lee, Ingrid: Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. New York: Hachette Book Group 2018, p. 164 ff.

[2] ebda.

[3] Baun, Dorothea/Groeppel-Klein, Andrea: The Association for Consumer Research. Joy and Surprise As Guides to a Better Understanding of Impulse Buying Behaviour. URL:

[4] Designboom. kazuaki kawahara wraps toilet paper roll with juicy fruit packaging. URL:

[5]. Canva.50 insanely creative and stunning packaging designs. URL:

[8] Neue. URL:

Joyful Design 05

In my last blogpost I mentioned that by injecting meaning and context to experiences, we trigger an emotional response that can either be happiness, compassion, surprise or amazement. Those emotional responses can trigger a joyful experience. In the following you will find typical examples for joyful design considering and working with happiness as an emotional response to trigger a joyful experience.


When working with “happiness” as a trigger for a joyful experience we can especially refer to a wide selection of visual cues. Visual cues that evoke a feeling of happiness, leading to a joyful experience can be the use of bright colors, multi-colored color palettes, round shapes, symmetrical shapes, abundance and multiplicity.

Colors, sprinkles, rainbows, bubbles and confetti–as embodiments of happiness–are perceived by a majority of people as joyful. [1]


A perfect example of design, working with all the visual cues arousing happiness is M&Ms (as well as Smarties, Skittles and Sixlets, to mention a few). The multi-colored (even if they all have the same taste), round-shaped, “chocolate beans” are amongst the most popular candies and their “happy” design for sure is a factor of success.

Over the years, marketing has helped build and expand the M&M’s brand. Computer-animated graphics, personification of the candies as characters with cartoon-like storytelling, and various merchandising techniques including the introduction of new flavors, colors and customizable merchandise have helped to increase the brand’s recognition as a (happy) candy icon. [2]

The perfect mix of happiness: multi-colored, round shaped and furthermore the use of mascots, humour and storytelling

As in the case of M&Ms, happiness and in consequence joyful experiences can be triggered by working with “visual cues of happiness” which are in most cases simply colorful, playful design approaches. But we can also arouse happiness by working with nostalgia or humor.

Happiness—Colorful, Playful Design

“HIKI is a fun, fresh brand for every body and everybody. The wonton color scheme is playful, and without direct logic. This allows the tall, chunky, san-serif typeface of the logo to be the hero of the design. This is a brand that doesn’t present itself as too masculine or feminine, meaning it is for every consumer at every age. HIKI is a masterclass in how a brand can have a blast without skewing too youthful. This is a deodorant brand that is sure to charm it’s way into the homes and hearts of consumers everywhere.”— Shawn Binder. [3]

The Brand Design of Hiki is a great example of how color can be used to create a fun, fresh and open minded brand (appealing) to everyone–just by working with simple visual cues that arouse happiness.

Happiness—Nostalgic Design

Many of the visual cues creating happiness remind us of lighthearted, past times and can evoke feelings of nostalgia. Those cues can remind us of our childhood, teenage days or let our minds travel to distant times or/and cultures. The feeling of nostalgia gets willingly triggered to create joyful experiences. [4]

Designers can use nostalgia to appeal to their audience on a feel-good level. By tapping into people’s desire to feel a sense of belonging, meaning, and security, designers can endow their creations with emotion and sentimentality that connects with their audience and elicits a pleasurable feeling. [5]

Happiness—Fun, Humorous Design

Humor has been recognized as being important in promoting people’s wellbeing and happiness. By thinking out of the box we can use this knowledge to create a joyful experience using fun and humour as a central element of design.

The illustrations of “Beak Picks” packaging got a fun twist by covering the birds head with the individual fruit/ingredient. This simple but clever and suprising twist brings not only a smile on the consumers face but can also create a spark of joy. [6]


[1] TED. Fetell Lee, Ingrid: Where joy hides and where to find it. URL: (last retrieved November 08, 2020)

[2] Wikipedia. M&Ms. URL: (last retrieved on 06.01.2020)

[3] The Dieline. Playful But Not Childish Hiki Sweat Products Know How To Have Fun. URL: (last retrieved on 06.01.2020)

[4] The Dieline. VT Beauty & Health Lifestyle Brand. URL: retrieved on 06.01.2020)

[5] Canva. URL: (last retrieved on 06.01.2020)

[6] The Dieline. Vibrant Playful Illustrations Bring The Packaging For “Beak Pick !” To Life. URL:–to-life? (last retrieved on 06.01.2020)

Joyful Design 04

Context creates Joy

In his Ted Talk about “How beauty feels” Richard Seymour affirms the importance of creating context to achieve a joyful or “beautiful” experience. As an example he mentions lights in cars slowly turning off. “I’ve never found anybody that doesn’t like the light that goes out slowly. I thought, well what the hell’s that about?“ – Richard Seymour. [1]

Lights slowly turning off in cars are a perfect example of a subtle but joyful experience. In general, people describe this experience as natural, or just nice. But there is much more behind this experience design than just a nice “gimmick”. Lights slowly turning off – light to dark in six seconds – in fact, this experience perfectly imitates the experience of going to cinema or theater, which triggers a sense of relaxation tempered with anticipation. When the lights turn slowly dark within six seconds when being in cinema or the theater, that is exactly the moment of experiencing great anticipation – this characteristic gets automatically stored in our unconscious mind and therefore in further consequence connoted with a positive feeling. This theory even gets strengthened through the fact, that the experience of the lights turning slowly off in 6 seconds was experienced much more positive by people who are used to go to cinema or the theater. [2]

Hence, to create something joyful we have to trigger an emotional response – often aroused through poignancy, which can too trigger a sad emotional response. „It isn’t just about nice. And this is the dilemma, this is the paradox of beauty.“ as Seymour states. Joy can be aroused through triggering good, bad (pathos), exciting (triumph) or even frightening emotions. [3] Those emotions arise in our unconscious mind, even before we can manipulate them – smart design takes that knowledge in consideration to guide the experience.

A story, a work of art, a face, a designed object — how do we tell that something is beautiful? And why does it matter so much to us? Designer Richard Seymour explores our response to beauty and the surprising power of objects that exhibit it.

It is hard to find universal characteristics of joy or beauty. As mentioned in the previous post, there for sure is something like an universal experience of beauty, which is deeply related to our evolution. Related to evolution is humans fascination for:

Pastoral landscapes
(= safe, propitious and liveable environment)

Skilled performances
(= increase status, desirable personal qualities: intelligence, conscientiousness, access to rare materials)

Rare materials, Symmetry
(= wealth)

However, there is much more to consider in addition to this “predefined fascination” – particularly the details lie in our individual experiences, knowledge and preferences, that we develop over time. By injecting meaning and context to experiences, we trigger an emotional response:

Happiness, Compassion, Surprise, Amazement

Which can lead to a joyful experience. The creation of meaning and context can be achieved by considering elements that refer to our universal values, collective knowledge and/or individual preferences.

A water bottle by Ross Lovegrove [4] – pretty close to intrinsic beauty – an embodiment of water, something refreshing and delicious. People who are aware of how hard it is to design and produce a bottle of this shape enjoy this product even more.


[1] TED. Richard Seymour: How Beauty Feels. URL: (last retrieved December 29, 2020)

[2] ebda.

[3] ebda.

[4] Ross Lovegrove. URL: (last retrieved December 30, 2020)

Joyful Design 03

Joy and Beauty

Joy and beauty are two terms which are close to each other when it comes to our perception. Looking at art that we perceive as beautiful, watching an aesthetically pleasing movie, strolling through a beautiful landscape—all those activities evoke the feeling of (en)joy(ment).

According to Denis Dutton the most powerful theory of beauty—closely linked to joy—we yet have comes surprisingly from an expert on barnacles and worms and pigeon breeding: Charles Darwin. Many would say joy/beauty is whatever moves you personally or it is in the (culturally conditioned) eye of the beholder. There are many differences among cultures, but there are also universal, cross-cultural aesthetic pleasures and values. [1]

“We need to reverse-engineer our present artistic tastes and preferences and explain how they came to be engraved in our minds by the actions of both our prehistoric, largely pleistocene environments, where we became fully human, but also by the social situations in which we evolved.” —Denis Dutton

What do we experience as joyful/beautiful?

Answering this question is complex, because the things we experience as joyful/beautiful are so different and foremost they are omnipresent—in nature, in arts, in literature, etc. However, Denis Dutton attempts to reconstruct a Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic and aesthetic tastes. Dutton has no doubt that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. He explains beauty as an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of arts and entertainment. [2]

Two primary mechanisms of evolution:

  1. natural selection
    Natural selection is random mutation and selective retention along with our basic anatomy and physiology—such as the evolution of the eye. It explains many basic revulsions—such as the minging smell of rotting meat, the fear of snakes. But it also explains pleasures—liking for sweets, fat and protein, etc.

  2. sexual selection
    Sexual selection operates very differently. The most popular example is the peacock’s tail—it did not evolve for survival, but rather results from the mating choices made by peahens.

According to this idea, we can say that the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing interest of fascination in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptable decisions for survival and reproduction. As in the last blogpost mentioned an important source of aesthetic pleasure are landscapes—pastoral scenes. Regardless from culture people like this particular kind of landscapes. People do not only like it but experiences it as joyful/beautiful. Noticeable is that this particular kind of landscape happens to be similar to the Pleistocene savannas where we evolved. [3]

“The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.” —Denis Dutton

This universal experience of beauty in nature can also be recognized in an universal experience of beauty in art. According to Dutton it is widely assumed that the earliest human artworks were stupendously skillful cave paintings.

An artistic depiction of a group of rhinoceros, was completed in the Chauvet Cave 30,000 to 32,000 years ago.

But artistic and decorative skills are actually much older than that. Realistic sculptures of women and animals, shell necklaces, as well as ochre body paint, have been found from around 100,000 years ago. And even older than this are the Acheulian hand axes. Or the oldest stone tools, which go back about two and a half million years—choppers of the Olduvai Gorge, East Africa. These tools were around for thousands of years until around 1.4 million years ago when Homo erectus started shaping Acheulian hand axes. Those were made out of thin stone blades, sometimes rounded ovals and very often in symmetrical pointed leaf or teardrop forms. Those axes were found across Asia, Europe and Africa. A sheer number of those axes were created, which indicates that they can not have been made for butchering—many of them also do not indicate any evidence of wear. Trough the use of symmetry, attractive materials and their meticulous workmanship those axes are perceived as beautiful—even nowadays.

Acheulean hand-axe from Egypt. Found on a hill top plateau, 1400 feet above sea level, 9 miles NNW of the city of Naqada, Egypt. Paleolithic. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London

According to Dutton these ancient artifacts could have been the earliest known works of art, practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects—tools to function as „fitness signals“— displays that are performances like the peacock’s tail, except that, unlike hair and feathers, the hand axes are consciously cleverly crafted. Those competently made hand axes could have acted as an indicator for desirable personal qualities: intelligence, conscientiousness and in addition, access to rare materials (= wealth). Those skills were used to increase status—over tens to thousands of generations. Interesting about that is that we do not really know how this idea has been conveyed, since the Homo erectus did not have language. Stretching over a million years, the hand axe tradition is the longest artistic tradition in human and proto-human history. [4]

The Beauty in Skilled Performance

Nowadays, virtuosos technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies, to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance. But still, one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre: human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the art—we find beauty in something done well. Therefore, what we experience as joyful/beautiful is not necessarily a product of our subjective perception or influenced by culture. Furthermore our perception of beauty and joy has been handed down from the skills and emotional lives of our ancient ancestors—it is deep in our minds. Our perception and reaction to images, expression of emotion in arts, music, etc. has been with us ever since. [5]


[1] TED. Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty. URL: (last retrieved December 01, 2020)

[2] ebda.

[3] ebda.

[4] ebda.

[5] ebda.