Kitsch, The Perception of Beauty, & Web Design

Do you ever browse the web and find a hideous website featured in a web design gallery? I regularly ponder society’s perception of “Good Design” and what people consider beautiful, and it brings me back to my studies from college. If only I knew at the time that philosophy and postmodern minimalism would come back to haunt me as a designer.


While I didn’t learn a lot about the web in college there were two classes that made a huge impact on shaping my critical design thinking skills. Every day I find an application for the  concepts I learned from a Seminar in Aesthetics and Modern Art History class. Both classes took place outside of a computer lab and far from any easel; they were experiences that taught me how to truly understand art, beauty, philosophy, and perception. I learned that design can be a state of mind, multi-dimensional and contextual.


The best part of studying modern art history was my discovery that the most hideous art movements had the ability to seduce me into adoration. A perfect example of this is Kitsch, a genre of art that peaked my intrigue because of my very passionate open-minded instructor, Dr. Bersson.

According to Wikipedia Kitsch is:

…an art that is considered an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style of art or a worthless imitation of art of recognized value. The concept is associated with the deliberate use of elements that may be thought of as cultural icons while making cheap mass-produced objects that are unoriginal. Kitsch also refers to the types of art that are aesthetically deficient (whether or not being sentimental, glamorous, theatrical, or creative) and that make creative gestures which merely imitate the superficial appearances of art through repeated conventions and formulae. Excessive sentimentality often is associated with the term.

Koons-MJand Bubbles

Some would say Kitsch is crap. While it includes the figurines they sell in the dollar store it is also  Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson sculpture, and “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly”. Today I stumbled some excellent examples on Flickr:

lumbergh by SirWilly77


While many people may disagree with my opinion I perceive these paintings to be AWESOME. I am not looking at them in a critical manor, assessing their execution or content, they resonate with something personal inside of me. Feeling and perception are things you can not always prove, its that magic in art and design that makes beauty so subjective.

Many historians argue that Kitsch is not a genre of art. This debate was introduced to my class in college and we found ourselves in a heated discussion and eventually at a draw. There are experts who would say that it is not “good art” but people still love it, buy it, identify with it, and consider it good. The Jeff Koons piece currently sits in the Museum of Modern art in San Francisco.

Design is not art. Design is about solving problems, creating solutions and reaching goals, where art answers to no one but it’s creator. Art is subjective, but is design? It may not be a perfect comparison but I think about Kitsch sometimes when I see gawdy over-designed websites in galleries online. I try to empathize with those who love those websites as much as I love the Lumbergh painting above. My excitement for that painting may be rooted in nothing more than whimsy and delight, but can a expert critic really take that
away from me?

Jeff Koons Lobster Via the Chichi life

Web design answers to clients and users. Design is about communicating with people and they have emotions. Individuals identify with different aesthetics and they perceive beauty in different ways. We can leverage this to help tell more compelling stories but it can also backfire. A geometric swiss grid based layout may be boring to one client but seen by another as being stunning and classy. Taste is a tricky thing and it is what makes web design subjective because our designs all answer to someone else.

There is a lot we can do to minimize this with clients: education, explanation, present research and data. But at the end of the day if one of your stakeholders thinks that the porcelain statue of Michael Jackson holding Bubbles the chimp is awesome and they want their website to be just like that… you have a bigger decision to make that goes far beyond design.

Interested in more Jeff Koons?

Jeff Koons official website

King of Kitsch Koons exhibit in Versailles


  1. — May 20, 2010

  2. ben

    — May 20, 2010

  3. — May 21, 2010

  4. Brent Dickens

    — June 3, 2010

  5. — July 25, 2010

  6. — September 25, 2010