When you ask communicators what three little words they hate the most, “Make it pretty” is always at the top of the list.
This seemingly innocuous request undervalues and overlooks the important and hard work of design in communication - and implies that this kind of work is just about arts and crafts. Even worse, it's a terrible design direction. What does it mean to make something ‘pretty’? How do we know if we’ve done it? Is there value in making things pretty? And what even is pretty?
In this episode, Kyla sits down with Director of Design Strategy at Mural and author, Stephen P. Anderson, to get to the heart of the intangible phrase that enrages communicators and designers alike. They dive into Stephen's article “In Defence of Eye Candy” to look at the value of “Beauty” as a design concept and what pitfalls professionals make in trying to capture it. Then we go even deeper with Forbes contributor, and disability and beauty advocate Xian Horn. She challenges us to interrogate our monoculture of beauty standards and visual communication, and helps us find more meaning in the request to “Make it pretty”.
Director, Design Strategy & Innovation, at MURAL
Stephen P. Anderson is a speaker and author who spends too much time thinking about visual collaboration, how people learn, and board games; not necessarily in that order. Oh, and he’s on a mission: To make learning the hard stuff fun, by creating ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play. Stephen is currently Head of Design Strategy & Innovation at MURAL, where he explores new ways an increasingly digital and hybrid workforce might collaborate together. As a keynote speaker, Stephen continues to challenge and inspire audiences as he exposes the quirky connections between games, play, learning, interactive visualizations, and other exciting topics.
Stephen's newest book Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding (https://www.amazon.com/Figure-Out-Getting-Information-Understanding/dp/1933820969) has been described as an epic journey that will “change the way you see the world” and “required reading for designers and anyone else who needs to explain things.”
Beauty and Disability Advocate, Forbes Contributor and Founder of Give Beauty Wings
Xian Horn is a joyful half-Asian woman with Cerebral Palsy, who serves as founder of the non-profit, Give Beauty Wings. She is an advocate, speaker, ForbesWomen contributor, and former Exemplar for the AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge in the creation of Assistive Technology. Xian has frequently moderated and spoken at the U.N. for International Women’s Day and International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and has also presented at The Obama White House, The Harkin Summit, the ACLU, Microsoft, Apple, Target, Zappos, and Amazon among others. She advises beauty brands, architectural firms, cultural institutions and technology companies on improving accessibility and design thinking. Xian was named Women's eNews' 21 Leaders for the 21st Century in 2017 and honored in Walker's Legacy Power 15 as well as National Disability Mentoring Coalition’s Hall of Fame in 2018. Give Beauty Wings’ tailored Self-Esteem programs began at NYU's Initiative for Women with Disabilities and continue since 2011. Xian has also run vocational workshops for the NYC Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities for Disability Mentoring Day and taught at the Jewish Community Center Manhattan and Middle School 131. She is also the recipient of the first ever Positive Exposure Rising Leader Award in September of 2021. Xian’s lifework serves as a bridge to promote greater self-love and discovery, purpose, and connection for humanity as a whole.
Stephen P. Anderson: It's often when we look at things and say, " Ooh, that's pretty," that's diminishing a whole breadth of work that's gone into that final form, or that final poster, or that final object. That is the area I'd love us to develop our literacy and appreciation for what makes something, I'm going to shift my language, from pretty to good. What makes something good?
Kyla Sims: I'm Kyla Sims, your host for Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase. In this show we take an inquisitive look into the triumphs, accidental fumbles and chaotic clockwork behind internal communications. For this episode we're going to look into the query that nobody wants to hear.
Speaker 1: Hey bud. You got a minute?
Speaker 2: Yeah, yeah, totally.
Speaker 1: I just got to look at the stuff you sent last week. Thank you so much for sending that. I just got to look at it now.
Speaker 2: Oh, okay.
Speaker 1: We've got a presentation in about 14 minutes and we need to make some changes. It's just not quite there.
Speaker 2: Yeah, I got a minute. Are you thinking the ... Is it the font, are you wanting to switch up the font?
Speaker 1: Nope. The font is fine.
Speaker 2: Okay, I mean-
Speaker 1: Fonts are fine.
Speaker 2: I mean, on page three I kind of went different colour there maybe but do you want ...
Speaker 1: Nope. The brand colours are the brand colours. It's not that.
Speaker 2: Okay. Well, I mean I could try and look around. It's quite a few pages.
Speaker 1: Look, we got to get there quick. Could you just like, I don't know, make it pretty?
Kyla Sims: Ugh, just hearing that gives me chills. Make it pretty is one of the most annoying requests communicators get and a really difficult piece of feedback to act on. Sometimes flanked by its ugly stepsisters, " make it pop," or " make it sing." These throwaway phrases are the worst kind of creative direction, vague and often unactionable. What does that even mean, make it pretty? Thinner lines, brighter colours, smiling photography, actual glitter? So the question is, can we demystify it? Are there rules we can all live by to make it pretty? We're going to hear from two guests on today's show. We'll hear their take on how to make things pretty, and also when it's time to challenge that request.
Stephen P. Anderson: Test one, test two.
Kyla Sims: First one up is Stephen P. Anderson. Can you introduce yourself and tell us what it is you do?
Stephen P. Anderson: I'm a product designer. I've been working on software and technology since the late '90s.
Kyla Sims: Steven's role as a user experience designer and author has given him a lot of insight to think about how to make it pretty.
Stephen P. Anderson: Yeah, give just a moment here.
Kyla Sims: And some of that comes from his love and affection for board games.
Stephen P. Anderson: I think it's just an interesting lens or take on all of this. All right, so I'm dumping out the pieces here. There's the same sort of debate where people talk about, should the game be attractive or not, or " I really like the illustrations," but then people go and they play a game and they judge a game on a different set of things. Like, " Can I replay the game? Was the game fun?" All these things. And the same sort of separation of how it looks and how it feels happens in board games. And yet the two are intertwined, they're so intertwined.
Kyla Sims: In your career, have you heard the phrase " make it pretty before," or maybe " make it pop" or " make it sing?"
Stephen P. Anderson: Oh yeah. In all different contexts. It is, as you mentioned, a thorny, complex, complicated topic.
Kyla Sims: And do those sayings actually bother you at all?
Stephen P. Anderson: I look for the intention behind it and the understanding. I think that's more what bothers me. There's a request to make it pretty, but what's not seen is that there's a lot more going on. There's a lot of thought to information design or usability or how will it work or these other considerations.
And it's especially frustrating when you've worked on something that's just really good, let's say information design. It's the best way to communicate the information and the response is, " Oh, that's so pretty." And it's like, " Well, it's more than just pretty. But that's a natural byproduct of all the hard work I've been doing." Whether it's a poster, an infographic, a piece of software, a interface, whatever it might be.
Kyla Sims: Do you feel like the idea of making something pretty is subjective?
Stephen P. Anderson:There's definitely preferences, we all have personal preferences. Different preferences in how we take coffee, whether we like coffee or not. What someone wears, whether we like it. We all have them, we're humans.
If we go a bit deeper than that though we do have certain agreed upon, in a generation or within a demographic or whatever, we have things that we think are pretty or think are good standards, and those things change over time. And then there are some timeless, universal human biology things that affect what we think is attractive. So symmetry is one of those things. Or when we're doing composition and either having asymmetrical composition, or following the rule of thirds in photography and having things that are a little off- center but a certain way. And when something doesn't follow those, it can feel off or off- putting.
Kyla Sims: I want to take a little journey through Stephen's writing and investigations, and look at an article he wrote called In Defense of Eye Candy from 2009. In it, he mentions something that designers commonly disagree about. What is the role that beauty plays when developing a project? Can you explore the ideas from that article a bit with us and elaborate on that question?
Stephen P. Anderson: Yeah. I guess this idea that " make it pretty" is solely about attractiveness is what bothered me. But what I wanted to poke at was maybe there's more going on. One was the associations that we have with things. We don't talk enough about perceived affordances or prior associations. So does the thing look like a button, therefore I can click on it. Sometimes what people will put in the bucket of just making it pretty is actually making it more understandable or more usable, so people can recognize what it is and interact with it the way they should. That's one way to look at it, the cognitive aspect.
The next was, okay, so once something looks like a button and has the affordances and has the bubbled edge and all the stuff that we need, then what about the one that's glossy and has this code in or has this drop shadow or has all this other adornment, what's the effect of that? And again, this changes with time and changes with the trends, but what I found was attractive things are perceived to work better. I'll say that another way. Things that we find enjoyable, we find easier to use and more efficient. And the psychology for this is a little bit convoluted, but here's the idea. If you encounter a situation that's really frustrating, our brains tend to narrow down, lockdown, and we keep trying the same thing over and over and we get more frustrated, because things aren't working the way they should. But if we're in a relaxed state of mind and we're happy, our brain is more fluid and flexible. And so when we encounter those things that don't work like the should, we are more likely to find workarounds and creative solutions, rather than keep trying the same thing that's not working. So that's the logic between attractive things work better.
But I also talked about aesthetics and trust. I used an example of a gas station. And at the time of where I lived, there were some gas stations nearby that were falling apart. Like duct tape holding things together and it hadn't been serviced in years. The paint was scratching. All those vinyl letters they had put on years ago were all peeled off, some were gone. And the questions that raises are, "Okay, if I put my credit card in this gas bump, is my information safe? Because they clearly don't care about anything else." And that some people may say, "Well, it doesn't make sense. It's not rational." But we look at things as human beings and where we see things unkempt or not taken care of, that affects our perceptions of other areas. " Well, maybe they don't take care of their data or their privacy or the security. Maybe there's a phishing, scamming card or whatever that's going to read my credit card." All that to say it's not that attractive things or always have more trust. It's attractive things suggest a story because of prior associations. So now you've got three gas pumps , the one that's really not maintained, the one that's really nice, shiny and new, and the one that has a story or has character or has vintage in some way. And they all suggest different things in our brains. So when we talk about making it pretty, it's complicated.
Kyla Sims: Stephen's example got me thinking. If our visual associations influence whether we feel like something is trustworthy or easy to use, what story do our internal communications tell? What story is our outdated intranet or '90s newsletter design telling about our organization? How does that influence our messages and credibility? And perhaps most importantly, how do employees' feelings about our communications change their perception?
Okay, so let's talk about your first book, Seductive Interaction Design. The title of chapter four is Are You Attractive? It talks about aesthetic, cognition, affect, all sorts of stuff. How does this all come into play when we're trying to answer the question of what beauty and prettiness is really?
Stephen P. Anderson: What I wanted to highlight was that idea we mentioned earlier, that if something's enjoyable, we'll often find it easy to use and more efficient. And emphasis on that word perceived. Prettier things are perceived as easier to use. That's the key point. And at the same time, I made the point that this idea that how we feel about something, the affect, the emotions and what we believe, the cognition, I made the point that those aren't separate things. And this is something I see in software teams all the time where you'll have one group arguing for beauty and attractiveness, often designers or certain types of designers. And you'll have other groups, often the engineers, and again I'm stereotyping, I apologize, arguing that it just needs to function. And we get these debates around whether it should be functional or whether it should be pretty. And the answer is it's not both/ and, you can't separate those. Those are fundamentally inseparable things, how I think can't be separated from how I feel.
So right now you're feeling something, you're thinking stuff, those are all neurons, firing and wiring together and they are not separable. Beauty is like form and function and working in harmony. And that's been my philosophy. Another area is the whole ad industry, going back to at least the 1950s, where you have the writing path, with text editing, copy editors and content and all that. You have the visuals, with photography and illustration and all that. And you often look at who arrives at a creative director position, and it's either someone who came from the art director path or someone who came from the copywriting path, and they tend to have a bias one way or another. Well, some of the most amazing ads in history were people who didn't separate those, they were artificial. And you would look at these really amazing creative ads, they're just a perfect blend of visuals and imagery. Or recognizing that these things aren't separable and we shouldn't be teasing them apart.
Kyla Sims: Let's talk about your latest book, Figure It Out, which might be actually my favorite book title ever, by the way.
Stephen P. Anderson: Thank you.
Kyla Sims: Figure It Out is great. In the book you bring up this idea of association between concepts. Can you give us a basic rundown of what this means and its importance?
Stephen P. Anderson: Yeah. When we talk about things like figuring it out or things making sense or like, " Aha, I finally understand it," by and large, when we have that eureka moment where we're like, " Aha, this finally makes sense," it's often less about arriving at truth and it's more about there's pattern matching going on. You finally have connected this new thing to a prior experience and the patterns fit.
What we think of as understanding is really about activating these prior associations. Things like the iceberg model that shows up in PowerPoint presentations everywhere. And usually people invoke the iceberg as a metaphor to say, " There's all this stuff on the top, but then there's all this stuff below the surface we're not talking about or that's invisible." That's the idea. And what I wanted to say was, that metaphor would be meaningless if people hadn't encountered the idea of an iceberg prior. But it only works because we understand the metaphor, we understand the reference, we can map all these associations. We're activating this idea, this prior association, of stuff you see above the water or stuff you don't see below. So when we're born and we're reaching out, we're developing proprioception and the ability to feel in space. And all the way from there all the way up we are continually encountering new information, and we're trying to map it to what we've accumulated in the past to see if there's a pattern, and if that works and if that makes sense.
Kyla Sims: You also have an example in your book that draws on the simplicity of comparison that industrial designer Dell Coates makes regarding tea cups. Can you take us through that example?
Stephen P. Anderson: Yeah, I'll describe it here for listeners. He's got two cups. One cup, cup A, is very minimal, clean. It's a perfect cylinder with a simple ring handle. And then cup B has a flare to it and the decorative handle and has edges and they're an octagon shape if you were to look down on it. And what he does then is, he deconstructs ... It's almost like the DNA of these two cups. And so he has a pairing, clean and dirty is the first one, and light and heavy, and then boring and interesting. It goes on. And he's mapping the DNA of these cups and talking about what is our view or our idea of an ideal cup as human beings, as human creatures. That it's not as simple as just teasing apart look and feel, or form and function, all this. They're all intertwined into a whole, and we experience things as a whole, but we can talk rationally about specific decisions and what sort of associations they activate in our memory or what sort of perceptions they help shape. It's often, when we look at things and say, "Ooh, that's pretty," that's diminishing a whole breadth of work that's gone into that final form, or that final poster, or that final object. That is the area I'd love us to develop our literacy and appreciation for what makes something, I'm going to shift my language from pretty to good. What makes something good. Red pieces, and then here are the yellow pieces.. .
Kyla Sims: It's been an absolute pleasure, so thank you.
Stephen P. Anderson: Thank you, Kyla. Been a pleasure. Yeah, sixes, I think that's good.
Kyla Sims: During my conversation with Stephen I couldn't help but think of all the internal newsletters, slide decks and other communications that we put out to employees that could benefit from this kind of perspective. How our unconscious mind and our previous associations can change the way that we perceive communication. If we consider all of this when we attempt to make it pretty, we have to go beyond just choosing fun colours and branded fonts, but really think about how to marry form and function, and spell out the assumptions we're making about our audience's associations and our own. But there's still something missing. Stephen helped us figure out different ways to make something pretty, but the question still remains, what is pretty? What is beautiful? These days any generalizations about what is beautiful or pretty or good needs to be challenged.
As we become more conscious of systemic and historical factors that influence our standards of beauty and aesthetics, it's important to make sure we're not just holding up the status quo. Up next we're going to talk to someone who's well known for challenging cultural beauty norms, to help us question what pretty really is and help us expand our perceptions of what beauty can be.
You're listening to Infernal Communication, a podcast brought to you by Staffbase, where we dive into the deeper conversations happening behind some of the biggest comms, problems and puzzles that impact organizations and beyond. If you're enjoying the show, make sure you follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to listen from. You can also check out the show on our website by going to InfernalCommunication.com. Don't forget to rate and review, or maybe even slide us into your group chat with friends and let them know about this cool new podcast you're listening to. Let's keep the conversation going.
This episode we're exploring the phrase " make it pretty." A vague bit of design direction that most creatives and comms folks have butted heads with at one time or another. Author Stephen P. Anderson helped us get out of the weeds a bit and explore the notion of pretty on a higher level. When we zoom out like this, it seems that how something looks matters less than how we feel about it, and how we feel about it is informed by our experiences, its usability, and of course our cultural norms.
Xian Horn: Yeah, no rush. I'm wondering about the lighting, I'm still not-
Kyla Sims: And that's where we come to an incredible story of a woman who set out to challenge those norms. Oh, you're okay. You look good.
Xian Horn: I'm Xian or Xian Horn, just to confuse people. I traverse the world with two shiny ski poles. I have cerebral palsy, which I consider the blessing of my life.
Kyla Sims: Xian Horn is a writer.
Xian Horn: Yeah, I'm an advocate.
Kyla Sims: Founder of the not-for-profit Give Beauty Wings.
Xian Horn: Teacher, speaker, Forbes contributor, pet juggler.
Kyla Sims: And an all around ray of sunshine.
Xian Horn: You know, the usual.
Kyla Sims: We want to get to the bottom of this phrase "make it pretty" with you, and discuss some visual communication norms. But I want to start by hearing about your story first.
Xian Horn: Oh my gosh, yes. I mean, advocacy was not something that I planned to do. Sort of found me, and it found me through my love of writing. I was an English major and I told everybody I was a writer, but I was a writer who was never writing. I became a grant writer for a theater in New York, which had 45 members total, 15 with disabilities. And I was never really comfortable in disability- only spaces when I was younger because I felt that didn't reflect the real world.
But when I met this theater group that was so diverse, to me that seemed to represent more of the real world. And so I was six months grant writing for them and they said, "Hey, by the way, would you like to write a monologue and be in our next show?" And I thought, "I've never done this before." And they were like, "Oh, it's a year long writing process. Not everyone will make it to the end." So I wrote this piece about ... It took me a long time to realize that I had a form of denial in terms of I'm a walking heart, I'm a walking smile. And I would kind of just deny everything that was from the neck down because I think that that was my way of being focused outward. And so that piece, which it took two years, that writing process ended up really being about fully embracing this body that I've been given.
That first day that I went my dad was there and then two of my exes showed up and sat next to him. And so I remember walking out and a lot of people seeing me with two ski poles would assume that the leg shaking was because of my CP, but I just remember literally being shaky on my legs. And also, just when the lights are on and you see people's faces and some you recognize and some you don't, in that moment I think adrenaline takes over. And once I sat down and was able to tell my story, then I was more free to just be and be in that moment.
You know what I think gave me the courage, was realizing that my story was not for me and we don't know the value our story can have for others. That really motivated me. And so I realized I wanted to be that love and support that others may not have had. So I said, " Where else do we get our sense of self- esteem?" The answer that came at the time into my head was the beauty industry.
“Hi, I'm Xian Horn, and I'm here to have a heart-to-heart with you about the Dove campaign.”
So I did a one- minute video, in this living room actually, on zero budget, pitching the Dove campaign, asking them to include people with disabilities in their advertising. They had already celebrated older women and people of all sizes. And so to me, disability inclusion just seemed like the next logical step. That video went viral. And then, I mean, because of that video, I then was asked to run some classes at NYU's Initiative for Women with Disabilities. I'd never taught a day in my life. And so they said, "Well, is there anything you want the girls to know about?" And I said, "Well, I want them to know how beautiful they are." Because similar to my experience with the theater, I felt like I was in a room full of light bulbs and all they were doing was talking about how dark everything was. That's really the onus behind Give Beauty Wings.Kyla Sims: I want to think back to what Stephen said to us earlier. He pointed out how our concepts of beauty and pretty are rooted in our previous associations and perceptions. And so Xian is challenging us to question why we have those previous associations, as well as how our cultural norms are feeding into those perceptions of what makes something pretty or beautiful. So when it comes to making it pretty, Xian has a few thoughts on how to make that unactionable feedback into something tangible. How would you describe the ecosystem that we're operating in today when it comes to public- facing and internal visual communication?
Xian Horn: Well, I think it's complicated. First of all, in terms of that question, " make it pretty," what is pretty? I think that each company, each culture, needs to define what that is or just throw it out. But there isn't a monoculture, it's never been the case. It's just what we see and what we've seen represented only represents a small number of people. And we have taken that to be the majority of what is considered pretty or beautiful or aesthetically pleasing.
And what's happening now is that we have almost this mad dash to catch up. And so what ends up happening too is that we're just throwing diversity at things without actually thinking about what does it mean. It's like, " Okay, I'm just going to put someone in a wheelchair in this ad," or, "I'm just going to put a woman here because ..." I don't know, it just feels a lot like quotas and tokens. And so what I'm always pushing for is meaningful inclusion and empowered representation. I don't think representation is enough. And then there's a definition, what is genuine. And so it's really difficult to define in one way, and I think that's a good thing that we don't define it in one way.
Kyla Sims: What do you think is a better alternative to the common request to make something pretty or make it pretty?
Xian Horn: I think the fact that that's even said is kind of strange. Because what is pretty, it's such a subjective thing. Now if you want to say keep it on brand and you know what your brand is, that's one thing. Or maybe it's more, make it inclusive. And I think if that person has a certain aesthetic, they should define what that aesthetic is.
Pretty can be anything. It doesn't matter how beautiful or hideous something is, there's always going to be somebody that thinks it's ugly and somebody that thinks it's beautiful. And sometimes you might put something out that you think is pretty, that you think is inclusive, that you think is great, and you might get lambasted for it on social media. And this is where you learn.
Kyla Sims: I know what you're saying. And that's a really interesting one, because I feel like being open to that feedback is just the challenge of our age. Can you take feedback?
Xian Horn: And I think people are so ... They're not taking those risks because they don't want to be eviscerated on social media, but sometimes that's what it takes for you to do it the right way. And I think that when you have humility, you're like, " Okay, we tried something. It didn't work, and we are committed to doing it better." That, to me, I feel more allyship in that than in being defensive or trying to just not take risks at all because we want to play it safe. That way we never get into trouble, but we never make impact either.
Kyla Sims: Thank you, Xian, it's been an absolute pleasure to talk with you today. Thank you for joining me. I'm so grateful for our conversation.
Xian Horn: Me too. Right back at you. And I don't know, just thank you for even giving me something to think about, and hopefully lots of the listeners are thinking about what their definition of pretty is, what their goals are. And I'm excited to be a part of furthering that conversation with you.
Kyla Sims: When it comes to the infamous request to make it pretty, perhaps all we need to do is just switch out the final word, make it what? Honest, meaningful, accessible? Stephen gave us the lens to look at the bigger picture and Xian showed us how to bring it all into focus. Next time someone asks you to make it pretty, I hope you remember our conversations from today and see it as a call- to- action rather than a dismissive creative direction. In the end, challenging our assumptions and understanding the relationship between usability and aesthetics will make our communication stronger.
Today our guests were Stephen P. Anderson, Director of Design Strategy at Mural and author of Seductive Interaction Design: Creating Playful, Fun and Effective User Experiences, as well as Figure It Out: Getting from Information to Understanding. And of course, Xian Horn, the founder of Give Beauty Wings, writer and beauty and disability advocate. I'm Kyla Sims, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase with production support from JAR Audio. Join us for our next episode where we are going to look into the power of a single, carefully written call- to- action that resonated across the entire world.
Toby Morris: There's a graph called Flatten the Curve. We made it really quickly, and almost immediately it had a huge response. The New Zealand Prime Minister had printed it off his printer and held it up in this national press conference. And immediately my phone started blowing up with everybody sending me screenshots. " Oh, Ryan Reynolds shared it," or something, some weird celebrity.
Kyla Sims: Don't forget to hit follow on Apple Podcasts or subscribe wherever you get your shows. And if you liked today's episode, leave us a review. We'd love to know what you think. Until then, thanks for listening.
Kyla is a writer, content creator, speaker and host of Infernal Communication.