By Mayda Freije Makdessi
Partner, Head of Creative Services and Arabic Relations, Communica Design, Beirut office
When I teach design, the issue of context and content versus aesthetics often comes up. Context is about how the design relates to a particular culture, while content refers to creating something meaningful within that context.
Aesthetics, on the other hand, is a superficial perception of beauty, something that purely appeals to the senses. Something devoid of context and content can still be aesthetically pleasing. But when we attach context to aesthetics, it can give it more value.
With the internet and the immediacy of capturing images, as well as manipulating them, we are seeing much in the way of purely aesthetic images: beautiful sunsets, deliciously prepared platters, or the texture of a twirling skirt. We can sense a systematic trend in relying on these “frozen moments”, which trigger our senses and tastes, and affect the way we design.
Context in my work is never at the cost of aesthetics. I want my designs to always be about communicating a message, resolving problems and enhancing human experience. They are not about what they look like, but what makes us stop, think and question. For me, aesthetics reinforces the context and supports it.
Meaningful design in Arabic.
When students first start out in my classes, they have set ideas that are mainly focused on what they perceive as the end result: how something looks. Once they start the project, by going through repetitive processes of research, sketching, problem analysis, and testing ideas, they often start to see the important role of context.
In most of my briefs for students, I have made it a point to introduce social issues. Each student is asked how they can contribute and make a difference in their community, how can they solve problems or at least attempt to resolve issues, no matter how small.
This effort is a small step toward a lifetime where the students feel engaged and have a sense of responsibility. When the students come together from different backgrounds, sitting side by side and listening to each other, their knowledge of their culture and world expands. Their openness and outlook changes, recognizing larger issues that need to be tackled.
The choice of materials is also important to context. Materials, such as paperboard, texture and craft, reinforce the design and may elevate what you want to visually convey.
Tactile experience is as important as the visual experience. These choices carry as much meaning as the perceived design in and of itself.
I think it is easier to make something beautiful than to make it meaningful. Seeing something beautiful can move your senses and trigger emotions, but to hold that attention, one needs to work within contexts that connect with audiences and to take advantage of the tactile experience. I believe this is an important part of a designer’s work.
About the writer
As a senior lecturer and creative director/designer, Mayda teaches design at AUB and AUST universities and develops concepts and communications designs for clients at her company, Communica Design. She is from Beirut, Lebanon, where she currently lives.