Three Design Conditions of Thomas Aquinas

The concept of design entered new arenas in contemporary society. Design in traditional fields, like architecture, has clearly changed as exemplified by modern architectural feats. And design has entered areas that didn’t even exist years ago, like web design. With new developments and changes in culture, design demonstrates those change. However, there are some principles of design that go back hundreds of years and more.

Thomas Aquinas was a priest, theologian, and philosopher in the 13th century. But this medieval thinker was incredibly insightful and offers some principles that can be applied to contemporary design.

He formulates them as three conditions of beauty. Beauty, he defines, is that which pleases when seen. The word ‘seen’ carries with it more the idea of contemplation than a casual glance. Beauty, to be appreciated, requires thought. We want to spend time thinking and examining things we find pleasing, things that are beautiful and well-designed.

The first principle is proportion. This involves composition; there must be balance and harmony. People might  have different ways of ordering things, but people delight in order and harmony, rather than disorder and chaos, especially for design. A poorly designed website—where you can’t find anything—is not pleasing. There are many ways to order something, but it should make sense. Good design presents harmony, order, or proportion. And all of the parts must fit together with each other. Thus, balance should be present.

The second principle is wholeness or integrity. This carries the idea that an object has everything important to its essence; in other words, it is not lacking anything it needs. A dog ought to have four legs, according to its nature, not three or five. When it comes to design, this might not be as specific as the number of legs a dog should have. But we still occasionally have a sense that something is missing from an object or another object is too busy or complicated. A good designer will be able to know the middle ground (or mean) between excess and deficiency.

The third principle is radiance. Radiance is the most ambiguous of the three, but it might be the one trait that is most important for beauty. We have all seen things that manifest proportion and wholeness, yet we are not drawn to those objects. Radiance is the quality of an object that makes us want to continue perceiving it. The image Aquinas has in mind here is light. A radiant object shines before us. This doesn’t necessarily have to be actual light. Radiance might involve real light, but it is also metaphorical for the quality that captures our attention and holds onto it.

Aquinas presented these three as conditions of beauty, but I believe they could be conditions (or principles) of design more generally. Good design involves aesthetics. Since people already consider these three principles (perhaps, using different terminology), I thought it might be helpful to show that certain design principles have roots back to the medieval period.

For Further Reading:

Umberto Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, Harvard University Press, 1988.

Etienne Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful, Dalkey Archive Press, 2000.

Christopher Scott Sevier, Aquinas on Beauty, Lexington Books, 2015.

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