“I have found that all ugly things are made by those who strive to make something beautiful, and that all beautiful things are made by those who strive to make something useful.” —Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde saw the world differently; you have to be in order to concoct something like “The Importance of Being Earnest” and The Picture of Dorian Gray. I used to love this quote from him. During that time, I was working in an environment where design was perceived as decoration, not as a tool for more effective communication. Being directed to produce content according to the personal whims of those whose attitudes toward design disagreed so starkly with my own, I found (fairly shabby) solace in Wilde’s statement that a fixation on looks over utility is a one-way street to Ugly Town.
But since then, I’ve discovered that there is always—always—some redeeming quality in an “ugly” thing…if we have enough empathy to notice it. We all crave beauty; it adds value to our lives by providing delight and awakening our curiosity. It’s natural to strive for beauty, and understandable that beauty drives our desire to innovate. Saul Bass said, “I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares, as opposed to ugly things. That’s my intent.”
But making beautiful things can be disappointing and frustrating, because it often requires a clear visual imagination, the skills to execute it, and confidence from start and finish.
In high school, I once walked into the bathroom to find three girls in front of the long mirror, frantically outlining their eyelids with fine tip Sharpies, drawing thicker and thicker lines over their mistakes and cursing all the while. My heart goes out to those who do that (and the equivalent of that) today. Because beauty isn’t a simple line to draw. Our wish for beauty comes from a deeper longing; this is anything but shallow.
So Wilde’s statement opens a larger set of questions. What is so bad about being ugly? Is ugliness ever useful? If beauty is useful in evoking pleasure, which is important to our wellbeing, then isn’t any pursuit of beauty a utility-based pursuit? And if beauty is only a result of utility, then are our pinky toes (arguably a vestigial structure) forever ugly?
What if we apply just another coat of nail polish, to cover up the last mistake?