Aesthetics for health and happiness in brands and digital design
From administering every blink, breath, and heartbeat to enabling us to think, feel, learn and create — our mysterious brain is a machine so sophisticated and powerful that it often is referred to as the most complex thing we have yet discovered in the entire universe.
But our brain is under attack. We build technology that challenge our ability to think clearly and truly engage in life. And the great aesthetic narrative of modern society is disregarding our deeper nature and fragile minds.
Natural aesthetics in brands and technology — a research project
How we sense our surroundings determines how we feel about ourselves. Surrounded by nature, we are more prone to feel relaxed, inspired, and grounded in the moment. Even surroundings that just convey a sort of “naturalness”, by employing principles found in nature, are good for us. Not only do we feel more connected to our lives in such surroundings — research indicates that it positively alters mood, reduces stress, improves concentration, and restores attentional capacity. Exposure to natural forms is also correlated to self-perceived health, and studies even propose better recovery from surgery.
Inspired by all living species’ inherent appreciation of the grown environment, we explore how nature can inform technology and its aesthetics. The health effect could be significant: We experience between 6000–10.000 brand impressions every day, and we spend over seven hours a day in front of the screen.
This is our first, early exploration of how natural aesthetics can be implemented in brand design and digital design. It is not meant to be a stylistic guide, but rather a theoretical and open framework that still needs the craftsmanship, curiosity, and creativity of a designer to come to life.
Some of our proposals are speculative in its relation to health, some are more heavily backed by science. It is an exploration with no clear answers — an invitation to dialogue. In this first part, we question how we can use principles of natural light when designing for a glowing screen.
1. Using principles of natural light to strengthen the connection with our surrounding nature
In nature, the conditions of light and shadow are in constant flux. As an expression of time and motion, the liveliness of natural light evokes feelings of both drama and calm. Experiencing how nature emits, absorbs, and reflects light, has a profound effect on our biology. But, unlike other physical objects, a glowing screen does practically not reflect natural light at all–it is very much existing in isolation from our physical and natural world.
1.1. Changing light and shadow in correlation to nature’s cycles
By experiencing the shifts of light and shadow as we orbit the sun, the human body is regulating its body temperature, heart rate, and balance of serotonin and melatonin. The rhythmic variation in natural light guides our circadian system, and our psychological and physiological responses to light are related to sleep quality, depression, mood, alertness, and other health-related conditions.
Apple approach this through its Homekit feature Adaptive Lighting, through its iOS feature Night Shift, and indirectly through its TrueTone technology. Philips Hue has wake-up lights that emulate sunrise, and several recipes to simulate natural light. Still, it is an untapped potential of natural color dynamics in digital brand identities and experiences. Natural and dynamic use of colors could be implemented across backgrounds, texts, UI elements, 3D figures, illustrations, and photos — to name a few.
1.1.1 Reflecting color changes throughout the day. The tone and color of the sunlight and skylight change dramatically during the day. From soft warmth in the morning, through energizing midday brightness, to the golden setting sun. By using sunrise and sunset data to dynamically alter brightness, hue, and color temperature throughout the day, we could use our designed experiences to aid people’s circadian rhythm and sense of physical presence.
1.1.2. Reflecting changes throughout the season. How light change throughout the year is especially evident in parts of the world that go through four distinct seasons. Here in Norway, a year range from shorter to longer days, from dimmer to brighter light, and, from pale blue to vivid blue skies. By employing location data to dynamically adjust colors and brightness in correlation to seasonal light changes, we could strengthen people's sense of season and connection to nature.
1.1.3. Direction and depth of light and shadows. In the early morning and late afternoon, the sun has yet to reach its peak position, but it’s also not as horizontal as it is during sunrise and sunset. Thus, the length and colors of the shadows change during the day. By letting the light and shadow of digital objects dynamically answer to the position of the sun, we can emphasize time and physical position, and create a sense of both drama and calm.
1.1.4. Employing light and shadow in relation to the type of light source. Natural light is more than sunlight, and we are exposed to different light sources at different times. Thinking about how the appearance of digital materials can change based on the change of light source could help establish a deeper connection to nature. If a 3D model reacts to the changes of the sun during daytime, could it also be lit by an imagined fire in the late evening, and moonlight during nighttime? This way of thinking could help us implement richer and more natural day and night modes.
1.2. Reacting to ambient light
By using camera and other sensors to scan environmental light, it is possible to adjust the screen to make it appear as if the screen reflects light instead of emitting it. Because the colors on the screen look more natural, this establishes a connection between digital space and its surroundings. Meaning, that it establishes a connection between the digital space and its surrounding physical space — but not necessarily nature.
1.2.1. Adjusting screen based on basic ambient light input. Apple has a technology called True Tone, which measures the ambient light and adjusts screen brightness and color temperature to fit its surroundings. It makes us see the colors on the screen more similar to how they appear in the surrounding space. Samsung The Frame measures the ambient light and adjusts tone and brightness to make it appear as if the screen reflects light, in order to make the backlit screen look printed.
1.2.2. Rendering graphics based on complex environmental light input. As Bob Burrough shows us in his impressive project for The Environmental User Interface, there is a huge potential to further narrow the gap between the screen and the physical world. By detecting exact light conditions, we can let objects on a screen dynamically react to environmental light as if they were physical objects and materials.
1.3. Simulating natural dynamics of light and shadow
Nature is always unevenly lit, with light and shadow expressing its character and atmosphere, its volumes and objects. From bathing in sunlight and sharp shadows to the next second walking into soft flickering light, and suddenly, hiding in the shadows; In nature, we are constantly experiencing changing intensities, directions, and occurrences of light and shadow. These naturally variable light conditions, where you experience a complex balance of diffuse and direct light, connect us with space and matter. It breathes life into our surroundings, creates and a sense of presence, intimacy, and drama.
On the other hand, large uniform surfaces with little dynamic play in light can cause feelings of restlessness, unease, and boredom. And no surface can be as flat and uniform as a glowing screen. This might indicate that uniform and evenly bright screens could be harmful in large doses.
1.3.1. Non-uniform light conditions in a digital space. A digital experience, such as a website, could be seen as a digital space. Many of these digital spaces are favoring uniformity over diversity: a bright background, overall strong and coherent contrasts, and often one global drop shadow setting. It might be beneficial to simulate richer variations of light and shadow, using variations in brightness, contrast, and color temperature. Relation to nature could be further emphasized by simulating variable light coming in from different angles, non-uniform simulation of how graphics are lit and cast shadows, and even though the use of subtle gradients.
1.4. Reducing artificial light and flicker
Natural light and artificial light might look similar to the naked eye, but they are very different both in their spectral shapes and in how they affect our biology. Another way that artificial light is different from natural light, is what we call light flicker. Light flicker refers to the refresh rate of the screen (measured in Hz) and can be described as the rapidness of a screen pulsating or flashing.
Negative health effects, such as headaches, have been shown at frequencies up to 200 Hz. There is speculation of impacts at even higher frequencies. iPhone 13 Pro, with its ProMotion technology, ranges from quite high 120 Hz to as low as 10 Hz. This indicates that reducing artificial light could be helpful for our well-being.
1.4.1. Low brightness day and night mode. While digital designers cannot control the refresh rate of a screen, we can control the intensity of its pulstation. By using overall darker designs, also during daytime, we could lower eye strain, and possibly reduce screen-caused headaches and other screen-related health concerns.
The article will soon be updated with more content:
Part 2: Looking indirectly at nature
The effects and differences of looking at grown landscapes, nature, or natural effects through photos, film, motion, and illustration.
Part 3: Natural shapes, forms, and geometry
How using biomimicry and natural form concepts as inspiration for working with aesthetics, in general, can calm us and make us feel at home.
Part 4: Spatial concepts
How to use abstract spatial concepts from nature, and how to combine a broad range of natural concepts to a holistic spatial experience.
Design Ethics Director
stein [a] heydays.no