• Nicole Brown

Aesthetic Intelligence

What is taste? Is there such a thing as good taste? Is it really something that can be defined? Do you try to define it, and is it even worth defining such a nebulous idea? Who is the owner of taste?

For those of us designing product, that becomes one hell of a question to navigate. There are (at least) two major schools of thought: the designer knows best, or the clientele (and their cash) is the ultimate compass. There are inherent challenges with each of course, one being the impossibility of hitting both a moving and blind target, and another being convincing a customer base to buy into a vision, especially when it's a polarizing or unpopular one. I think this is a case where the question asked is more important than the outcome. Whose vision are we following? The Head Setter's? The climber's? The ownership group's?

Before we even get to taste, we should distinguish between two types of design process: design thinking vs aesthetic intelligence. Design thinking is designing to solve a problem. Aesthetic intelligence is designing to delight, to elicit a response. You might think of the two in terms of designing for how a product makes one think vs designing for a how a product makes one feel. How do you approach design? Do both of these methods factor into your product?

Most people are aware of these two design paths at a high level, although perhaps accidentally. I'm accustomed to the earful regarding 'aesthetics' in climbing. It's often the first argument made when the topic of what makes a good boulder is broached. Inching just ahead is probably 'functionality'. It needs to work, and then it needs to be pretty, because if it isn't pretty no one will climb it, and if it doesn't work (interpretation: it goes) then what's the point. Are beauty and the success of a top in a vacuum the only considerations worth establishing?

Chris and I choose to frame the entirety of our climbing gym product as an experience. The experience we're trying to cultivate is a topic we discuss to exhaustion. We place a lot of weight in how a customer feels when they interact with our product. We're feelers by nature, and believe strong emotions, even when negative, are worth pursuing.

Based on the book Aesthetic Intelligence, where I drew this concept from, aesthetic intelligence is "the ability to use one's senses to appreciate, elicit, and recreate pleasurable experiences." Pleasurable is the only piece of this I do not necessarily agree with. I think there is great value in the uncomfortable as well. And while I identify with the concept, I wouldn't say we're anywhere close yet, but the carrot is dangling. We've identified that it's there. The outline is fuzzy, we're not even sure that it's a carrot. But we're confident it's a vegetable. Teasing out the unadulterated version of the experience can't be rushed and requires incredible skill.

What camp are you in? How do you lead or influence your team one way or another? I'm anxious to dive further into this topic in subsequent posts, unveiling our ultimate 'experience', what good taste means to us and how we're establishing it, the pitfalls of aesthetic intelligence vs design think, and garnering customer buy-in.

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