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Uniformity Amidst Variety: A Guiding Principle

Published August 10, 2023
Published August 10, 2023
Ave Calvar via Unsplash

Principles guide our lives, even if we aren’t always aware of them. If we dig deep enough, we find core principles that direct our actions in different contexts: scientific, political, logical, and so on. Imagine two children receiving candy from their uncle. The first child gets one piece, and the second child unintentionally gets two pieces. The first child cries, “No fair!” So, for this child, “Everyone ought to receive an equal amount (of candy)” is a guiding principle, at least implicitly. In philosophy, the most basic principles are called first principles because they cannot be reduced any further; they are the primary ideas or starting points that govern a particular perspective or system in philosophy. Businesses will have something similar, whether or not they use the word “principle.” Since our core principles, if we are consistent in adhering to them, will influence our actions, then we need to think carefully about which principles are worth choosing and following.

Philosophers are trained in particular ways to question assumptions, clarify questions, and explore solutions. However, regardless of whether someone is trained in philosophy, one of the merits of philosophical thinking is the impulse to question your assumptions and principles every so often. Like a tick that keeps digging into your skin, philosophy, at its best, helps us push ideas into their deepest and more refined forms. I hope this essay inspires you to think through your own principles, as I’m about to share one that could prove useful.

We’ve all experienced an item from fashion, art, or architecture that was boring or, the opposite, garish. Or in another context, we can think of examples from a job where a procedure was streamlined and easy to follow, or a meeting that was disorganized or chaotic. People prefer not being on the extreme sides of these kinds of situations. Yet we want ourselves, art, and products to stand out and be noticed, but only for good reasons. One of the ways to stand out is using positive aesthetics, and even more specifically, beauty. While no one can produce strict rules (or a formula) that will guarantee the production of beauty in any context, people have suggested guiding principles that accompany their approaches to beauty, which we might think of more like a roadmap. And we will see how one of these principles might apply to business and your products as well.

Philosopher Francis Hutcheson proposed that our sense of beauty is founded on “uniformity amidst variety.” At first glance, this idea (or principle) seems, perhaps, too simple and vague. But the two ends of this statement balance each other. Uniformity by itself devolves quite easily into monotony, so uniformity must exist without being boring. As an example, a longstanding attribute of beauty, proportion, could exist in a painfully uninteresting object. However, uniformity is necessary to some degree. A business’s product line, customer service, and mission should align and form a coherent narrative. As a foil to uniformity, comedian Mitch Hedberg once pointed out that all McDonald’s commercials end with “prices and participation may vary.” So, he joked that he wanted to open up a McDonald’s and not participate in anything, even selling spaghetti and blankets instead of hamburgers. As a joke, this is hilarious, but as a business practice, this would induce incredible amounts of frustration, confusion, and anger in the customers. There needs to be uniformity, so that the employees can do their jobs, customers can know what to expect, and the company can develop reasonable goals. But rigid uniformity could actually hinder growth and development, and strangle a company.

We need variety to escape the doldrums of monotony. The need for some variety prevents the uniformity from becoming boring. Even things that we like, or even love, we need to take a break from, at least occasionally, in order to prevent it from going sour. Many people have experienced a song or movie that they used to love, but they have heard or watched it “too many times.” Yet variety alone can yield chaos or incoherence in someone’s art, fashion, or beauty, which is why an amount of unity is important. Uniforms in a school or a profession, for instance, may serve a useful function in those contexts. But generally, people use fashion to not just imitate but to also distinguish themselves. Besides financial gain, it makes sense that companies sell different colors of lipstick, nail polish, and other products. Even if people all liked a particular shade, they would at least occasionally want some variety. We are curious and creative beings, and enabling variety helps us expand and develop our taste and sense of identity. Unity guides variety to maintain a focus; variety guides unity to be dynamic.

These two complementary aspects of beauty—uniformity and variety—work in conjunction to enable something to be well formed, which has long been connected to beauty. The idea of being well formed may unite the function of an object or space with its appearance. And Hutcheson pointed out a common human concern is to avoid deformity. He explains that deformity often involves deficiency in what was expected. While we may be less inclined to use the word deformity, it seems to fit when a client, customer, or employee finds that a given product, process, or place is removed from a company’s mission, reputation, and previous quality. If we follow Hutcheson’s mantra of unity amidst diversity, then deformity can occur when either unity or variety dominates too much. Having a well-formed business involves balancing uniformity and variety throughout the company, which helps efficiency, productivity, and the overall experience.

To sum up, companies that make and sell beauty products should not only be concerned that their customers find a path to beauty, they should also be concerned about their own structural (or internal) beauty as well. A beautiful company seems more likely to have lasting impact than one that is deemed superficial or deformed. Many companies and organizations have developed good habits and abilities about their external relationships with their products and clients, but they are not always as adept at looking inward and seeing whether their guiding principles are consistently practiced in their own operations and internal relationships. Perhaps you are doing many of the positive things mentioned in the above examples, but this principle helps explain why it has been effective and offers a foundation for future actions.


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