The axiom of cognitive fluency states that human beings prefer things that are easy to things that are not. Making a thing cognitively fluent – simple, digestible, familiar – raises the chance that we perceive it to be “good”. Stocks with easy-to-pronounce names trade higher than their competitors; models with symmetrical facial features rank better than those without. This split-second judgment of character on which we base so much of our decision making is as sympathetic as breathing, as reflexive as a blink, and completely rooted in humanity’s survival as a species. Professor Norbert Schwarz (USC) said it best: “If it’s familiar, it hasn’t eaten you yet”
No visual appraisal is more relevant than the hurried glance we give passerby, and nothing ensures a positive appraisal quite like features considered cognitively fluent. A quick look and a snap judgment takes visual stimuli, subconsciously processes it through our primitive brain, then spits out information considered biologically useful.
Any slight halt in that process, from an off-step walking gait to the subtlest of facial lines, is a source of concern – a jarring signal to kick in the higher-order brain functions responsible for consideration, originally with the goal of keeping you alive.
In many senses, fluid aesthetic experiences are the result of obsessive “halt removal”. Symmetry, in features both bodily and concrete, leaves your subconscious mind – and therefore, your emotions – in the driver’s seat. The goal of many a designer is to create an immersive felt experience, and therefore iron out anything that could pause emotion and bring introduce logic. Across all media from fashion to sculpture, there is no more fluent a principle to designer and observer alike than the Golden Ratio: a/b = 1.618.
Many of the world’s most captivating objects (the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, even Japanese woodcuts) abide by the Golden Ratio, whether the designer had planned it or not. Simply put, 1.618 looks intuitively good to human beings because it never disengages your emotional brain. Art, architecture, fashion, and even facial beauty standards across cultures and eras all conform to this numerical guide.
“These faces fit right in… In effect, you’ve already learned the facial features, so people like them,” explains Piotr Winkelman, a psychologist at UC San Diego. The same principle, according to Winkleman, extends to nearly every aspect of visual recognition: more symmetry, more ease, more uninterrupted emotion.
But what if the designer plans otherwise? Rather than encourage fluency, some aim to yank the viewer from their cognitive trance in order to encourage thought, instead of prevent it. It is through this disruption of service, this forceful shake-awake, that new ideas are first introduced and progress is created. Tarnishing the Golden Ratio, paradoxically, generates new ideas onto which the Ratio is later applied to optimize the “new familiar”. Without proportional distortion, art could not evolve.
Fashion is no different: from Christian Dior’s New Look (above) to the oversized aesthetic of Haider Ackermann (below), newness has typically involved an element of skewed proportions that create both the unfamiliar and the fascinating. When designed well, this manipulation of features is interpreted as curious rather than threatening: the repulsive “Uncanny Valley” effect is alleviated by the novelty of the skew and the flawless execution of its surrounding. Proportional distortion is, in effect, just another brush ready-made for an artist seeking to transcend and progress.
Take, for example, Rei Kawakubo’s maniacal focus on the avant garde, expressed through the main collection of her label Comme des Garcons: in the below, anti-fit outerwear unexpectedly tapers into the model’s waist, while extending well past even “oversized” length in some dimensions.
This specific piece (from Comme des Garcons Ready-to-Wear FW14) creates a top-heavy, exceedingly tall visual far from 1.618 times its width – in other words, it’s not familiar. It’s discordant. Yet it still features several uninterrupted lines, is made of top-notch material, and demonstrates exceptional attention to detail regarding how the piece is worn on the body. Behind the madness lies tremendous expertise; all it took was a challenge to the stupor of the typical to realize it.
Your jerk from emotion into logic challenges, rather than threatens. Perhaps that atypical perspective may not suit you just yet. But a few years later, as other designers synthesize that original discordant inspiration and release their own, slightly-more-familiar takes on the source material, the end result will. Distortion serves an explicit purpose: it is managed malformation, a catalyst for change – and someday, it may be the new familiar.