Natural 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 brains are 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.

Table of contents:
Introduction
Part I — Natural light
Part II — Imagery of nature
Part III — Natural colors
• Part IIII — Shapes in nature (coming)
• Part IIIII — Spatial concepts (coming)

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 of introducing such aesthetics 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.

Part I—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.

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.

Reflecting color changes throughout the day can 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.

Reflecting changes throughout the season 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.

Dynamic use of light and shadow can emphasize time and physical position.

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.

The appearance of digital materials can change based on the change of light source.

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.

Detecting basic ambient light to make screen brightness and color temperature fit its surroundings.

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.

Detecting complex ambient light to render digital materials as if they were part of the physical environment.

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.

Employing non-uniform light conditions in a digital space.

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. Some research propose that light mode most often lead to better performance. Still, by designing for luminosity closer to how physical materiality reflect light, we could lower eye strain, and possibly reduce screen-caused headaches and other screen-related health concerns.

Using overall darker designs could reduce screen-caused headaches and other screen-related health concerns.

2. Employing images of nature to mirror the calming qualities of the grown environment

It is well known that spending time in nature is good for our mental and physical wellbeing. What is lesser known, is that even looking indirectly at nature — through an analog or digital simulation of it — could lower our stress levels and build resilience.

Indirect representations of nature can never be as effective as a direct human-nature interaction. Still, a low-cost way of infusing sterile and uninviting hospitals with healing qualities is swapping abstract art with naturalistic paintings or photos of nature. Being surrounded by art that represents and reflects nature can reduce the need for pain medication and decrease the length of hospital stays.

2.1.1. Photographs and illustrations of nature. Naturalistic representations of nature through photos and illustration might be one of the simplest ways to embed calming qualities into our work. Photos or illustrations of nature can be implemented in various forms. From full screen landscapes, to simply including an element of nature in a studio photo.

Even just a few elements of nature in a photo or illustration can feel calming.

2.1.2. Moving images with natural non-rhythmic stimuli. A drifting cloud, a humming bee, the fragrance from a flower carried by a gentle breeze: In nature, we are constantly experiencing spontaneous and brief moments of movements, scents, tastes, sounds, and skin sensations. These non-rhythmic and irregular events are a part of what breathes life into nature, and subconsciously experiencing them gives our lives a sense of nowness and presence. We already know them from meditation apps with “soothing soundscapes” of bird songs, waterfalls, and distant thunder. They have a calming effect on our busy minds and can have profound health and well-being benefits.

Similar to soundscapes of nature, also moving images encapsulating these non-rhythmic occurrences of nature can promote brain activity related to restorative processes. Compared to a photograph of nature, a video of the same scene could be more calming and induce a higher sense of presence.

Moving image with natural non-rhythmic stimuli. (Disclaimer: large file size, heavy compression)

2.1.3. Dynamic photos reflecting your time. Day turning to night. Spring transitioning to summer. Experiencing the ever-changing nature of the grown environment aids our circadian processes, connects us with time, and grounds us in the present.

In Section 1, we propose using location data to alter color, light, and shadow settings according to the shifting light as we orbit the sun. In combination with timed imagery that encapsulates even more complex circadian and seasonal shifts in surrounding nature, truly grounding and beautiful environments can be created. The way Apple’s dynamic desktop wallpapers change according to time of day, a website could have its photos captured in the morning light, shifting to midday brightness, and eventually fading into noon and golden hour before bedtime.

Photo changing according to time (Photo by Taylor Gray • Disclaimer: large file size, heavy compression)

A key necessity of feeling engaged in our lives is the ability to take an active part in our surroundings. Although looking at a beautiful photo of nature sure is nice, we are merely spectators of a beautiful scene — a scene detached from our physical presence. Physically being in that same nature is engaging our senses on a completely different level. By embedding physical principles, we can create a more immersive representation of nature in digital landscapes.

2.2.1. Perspective shift in 2D-imagery of nature. As we move around in the physical world, objects close to us move faster than more distant objects. This effect is known as the parallax effect, a name given to an often criticized visual feature commonly used on websites.

But a parallax effect closer to the natural experience could radically enhance the engaging effect of nature photograp and illustration, and bring in one more layer of reality to digital landscapes. Through scroll behavior, head movement, or device tilting, we can enable a person to somewhat move within a photography. Facebook has its uncanny 3D photo feature. Refined experiences made for the right reasons would be nice to see.

Through scroll behavior, head movement, or device tilting, we can enable a person to somewhat move within a photograph. (Disclaimer: large file size, heavy compression)

2.2.2. Immersive natural experiences through VR. Standing on the outside of a scene looking in is very different from being inside of it. Through virtual reality, we can experience more engaging and convincing simulations of nature than through traditional 2D imagery. This is especially meaningful for those hindered from physically going out into nature: Six minutes of nature exposure spent using a VR headset has been found to create similar effects as the same amount of time spent in the actual outdoors.

Six minutes of nature exposure spent using a VR headset has been found to create similar effects as the same amount of time spent in the actual outdoors.

Contact:
Design Ethics Director
Stein Haugen
stein [a] heydays.no

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