Sometimes, good design is good business. Just look at Apple. And sometimes,
bad design is bad business: look at Detroit. But sometimes, the beauty of the
object plays precisely zero role in purchasing decisions. That’s obviously the
case for things that aren’t ever seen: computer chips, for instance. But it’s
also the case for really big objects which can be described as "hideous",
"the worst-looking piece of major industrial design of the past 50 years",
"shamelessly, needlessly ugly", and "an aesthetic abomination".
Objects, that is, like the Airbus
When airlines choose between Boeing and Airbus, they don’t let the aesthetics
of the exterior drive their decision. And passengers, too, care only about the
interior, not the exterior, of the jet. But that doesn’t stop Patrick Smith
making an impassioned plea for beauty in aviation design:
Is it true, to cite a quote attributed to an Airbus engineer some years ago,
that "Air does not yield to style"? Jet age romantics recall the
provocative curves of machines like the Caravelle; the urbane, needle-nosed
superiority of Concorde; the Gothic surety of the 727. You’re telling us that
planes need to be boring, or worse, in the name of efficiency and economy.
No, they don’t. The state-of-the-art Boeing 787 is evidence enough of that.
Let’s take Smith at face value here, and assume that he’s right. Is it then
incumbent upon Airbus to build a beautiful plane? If not for the sake of profits,
then just for its own sake? My feeling is that any aesthetic stylings which
detract from an airplane’s cost-effectiveness are a very bad idea. After all,
a tiny change in an airplane’s profile can cause an enormous increase in construction
or jet-fuel costs.
That said, however, I also feel that great designers, of airplanes or anything
else, are generally incapable of producing something truly ugly (although some
things, like electrical substations, seem to be simply immune to beauty). Airbus
is a notorious europudding of a company – the classic place where all
decisions are made by committee. I do hold out some romantic hope that an ugly
design can never be the best design; that something truly efficient is likely
also to be good-looking. Maybe the A380 isn’t ugly because it’s efficient.
And just maybe there’s a solution out there which would have made it both better-looking
and cheaper to construct and operate.