Utility vs. Aesthetics?

It’s fascinating and powerful to reflect on your life. I remember years ago—seems like a lifetime ago, I was such a different person then—I used to have a little saying. “Utility over aesthetics” in the sense of “having regard to utility or usefulness rather than beauty, ornamentation, etc.

Whenever my wife and I would talk about arrangements in the house, I would often hear myself saying this. Basically what I was saying is, as long as it gets the job done, I don’t care what it looks like. When faced with a choice, I’d always choose utility over beauty.

It’s interesting to think about utility. It’s a bit like potential: this lever will help me move a big rock (sometime in the future when I need to move said rock). And yea, it’s not a pretty lever, but who cares? All I need to do is move this damned rock. It’s a bit like the bait that most organized religions use, convincing the flock to suffer today for a promised paradise in the future. This lever might be ugly, a pain to use, but it’s going to get the job done. So I may suffer a little bit looking and working with the ugly thing, but in the end I’ll be happy because I’ll get the result I was after.

As I learn to be more present in my life, I see the imbalance of such a viewpoint. What’s the point in living if everything around me is ugly? I remember getting a sense of what I was missing when I played a video game called World of Goo.  Why? Because of the aesthetics of the game. Everything from the soundtrack to the personality of the “goo” just drew me in. And I began to notice this in other little games I’d play. It was the little touches: the animations on the characters’ faces, attention paid to the smallest details in the environment, etc. It was just fun to be in these environments! It didn’t matter if you were winning or losing, just spending time there was a delight.

And it’s not just in the virtual world. I remember being fascinated when I’d travel to Europe at how it seemed as though they had my saying reversed. Often times things would be cute or even beautiful but sometimes might not work very well. Can anyone say Ikea?

Why am I writing this today? Because it occurs to me that in life we must strike all sorts of balances, and this is one that I really missed in my early years. Anyone who worked at Pluralsight and endured the ugly (but useful) internal dashboards that I created for our growing staff in the early years might resonate with this 🙂

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