The Challenge of Taste in Design

There are a lot of cultural swirls in the user-experience design tribe. I’ve delved into some of them now and then with my Communities of Practice writing/presentations. But one point that I haven’t gotten into much is the importance of “taste” in the history of contemporary design.

Several of my twitter acquaintances recently pointed to a post by the excellent Michael Bierut over on Design Observer. It’s a great read — I recommend it for the wisdom about process, creativity and how design actually doesn’t fit the necessary-fiction-prop of process maps. But I’m going to be petty and pick on just one throwaway bit of his essay**

In the part where he gets into the designer’s subconscious, expressing the actual messy stuff happening in a creative professional’s head when working with a client, this bit pops out:

Now, if it’s a good idea, I try to figure out some strategic justification for the solution so I can explain it to you without relying on good taste you may or may not have.

Taste. That’s right — he’s sizing up his audience with regard to “taste.”

Now, you might think I’m going to whine that nobody should be so full of himself as to think of a client this way … that they have “better taste” than someone else. But I won’t. Because I believe some people have a talent for “taste” and some don’t. Some people have a knack, to some degree it’s part of their DNA like having an ear for harmony or incredibly nimble musculature for sports. And to some degree it’s from training — taking that raw talent and immersing it in a culture of other talents and mentors over time.

These people end up with highly sharpened skills and a sort of cultural radar for understanding what will evoke just the right powerful social signals for an audience. They can even push the envelope, introducing expressions that feel alien at first, but feel inevitable only a year later. They’re artists, but their art is in service of commerce and persuasion, social capital, rather than the more rarefied goals of “pure art” (And can we just bracket the “what is art” discussion? That way lies madness).

So, I am in no way denigrating the importance of the sort of designer for whom “taste” is a big deal. They bring powerful, useful skills to the marketplace, whether used for good or ill. “Taste” is at the heart of the “Desirable” leg in the three-leg stool of “Useful, Usable and Desirable.” It’s what makes cultural artifacts about more than mere, brute utility. Clothes, cars, houses, devices, advertisements — all of these things have much of their cultural power thanks to someone’s understanding of what forms and messages are most effective and aspirational for the intended audience. It’s why Apple became a cultural force — because it became more like Jobs than Woz. Taste is OK by me.

However, I do think that it’s a key ingredient in an unfortunate divide between a lot of people in the User Experience community. What do I mean by this?

The word “design” — and the very cultural idea of “designer” — is very bound up in the belief in a special Priesthood of Taste. And many designers who were educated among or in the orbit of this priesthood tend to take their association pretty seriously. Their very identities and personalities, their self-image, depends in part on this association.

Again, I have no problem with that — all of us have such things that we depend on to form how we present ourselves to the world, and how we think of ourselves. As someone who has jumped from one professional sub-culture to another a few times in my careers (ministry, academia, poetry, technologist, user-experience designer) I’ve seen that it’s inevitable and healthy for people to need, metaphorically speaking, vestments with which to robe themselves to signal not just their expertise but their tribal identities. This is deep human stuff, and it’s part of being people.

What I do have a problem with is that perfectly sane, reasonable people can’t seem to be self-aware enough at times to get the hell over it. There’s a new world, with radically new media at hand. And there are many important design decisions that have nothing at all to do with taste. The invisible parts are essential — the interstitial stuff that nobody ever sees. It’s not even like the clockwork exposed in high-end watches, or the elegantly engineered girder structures exposed in modernist architecture. Some of the most influential and culturally powerful designs of the last few years are websites that completely eschewed or offended “taste” of all sorts (craigslist; google; myspace; etc).

The idea of taste is powerful, and perfectly valid, but it’s very much about class-based cultural pecking orders. It’s fun to engage in, but we shouldn’t take it too seriously, or we end up blinded by our bigotry. Designing for taste is about understanding those pecking orders well enough to play them, manipulate them. But taking them too seriously means you’ve gone native and lost perspective.

What I would hope is that, at least among people who collaborate to create products for “user experiences” we could all be a little more self aware about this issue, and not look down our noses at someone who doesn’t seem to have the right “designer breeding.” We live in an age where genius work can come from anywhere and anyone, because the materials and possibilities are so explosively new.

So can we please stop taking the words “design” and “designer” hostage? Can we at least admit that “taste” is a specialized design problem, but is not an essential element of all design? And the converse is necessary as well: can UX folks who normally eschew all aesthetics admit the power of stylistic choice in design, and understand it has a place at the table too? At some point, it would be great for people to get over these silly orthodoxies and prejudices, because there is so much stuff that still needs to be designed well. Let’s get over ourselves, and just focus on making shit that works.

Does it function? Does it work well for the people who use it? Is it an elegant solution, in the mathematical sense of elegance? Does it fit the contours of human engagement and use?

“Taste” will always be with us. There will always be a pecking order of those who have the knack or the background and those who don’t. I’d just like to see more of us understand and admit that it’s only one (sometimes optional) factor in what makes a great design or designer.

**Disclaimer: don’t get me wrong; this is not a rant against Michael Bierut; his comment just reminded me that I’ve run across this thought among a *lot* of designers from the (for lack of better label) AIGA / Comm Arts cultural strand. I think sizing up someone’s “taste” is a perfectly valid concept in its place.

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  • http://www.graphpaper.com Christopher Fahey

    Taste isn’t a linear scale, either, although the term implies that it’s either good or bad. There are many kinds of taste — what is good taste in one world may be in poor taste in another.

    (Actually, that expression — “poor taste” — also points out that there is an angle to the concept of taste that has to do with tact, good behavior, etiquette, even morality. It is said, for example, to take a sense of taste to know when you should, say, bring up someone’s family member’s illness and when not to do so.)

    This is why I prefer to get more specific and talk about “class” and “style” when talking about this kind of thing. Because when we say “taste”, we generally mean one of those things.

    Beirut was thinking that way, too, I think. He meant “so I can explain it to you without relying on whether or not you have the same stylistic preferences I do.”

    Which brings me to your essay: Might it not be true that even wrt behind-the-scenes interaction design there are variations in individual designers’ sense of taste/class/style? Where one designer thinks users should have lots of preferences and another thinks they should simply have the features that work best? Where one designer likes wizards and another likes dashboards? Where one thinks users should be assisted from page one, and another thinks users should be allowed to explore?

    We can’t say that “well, just do the research and make the recommendation based on that” any more than any other kind of designer can. We make personal preference based design decisions every day without testing their assumptions, using only our sense of style, taste, and class to go by. We don’t even discuss them. And for those many undiscussed interaction design decisions that simply come out correctly because we’ve got the right “taste”, our clients hire us because, you know, they trust us.

  • http://www.inkblurt.com/ Andrew

    @chris
    Thanks for the very thoughtful comment.
    I think taste is definitely more complicated than “good or bad” — and it’s also more complex than merely being about surface style and aesthetic signals.
    I think in any human society, there emerge various pecking-order clues about where we stand among peers, and where our work stands. Some of these things are relevant and some aren’t.
    I suppose I’m just hoping we can all be smarter and more self-aware about this stuff. To have some perspective, so that it doesn’t trick us into destructive assumptions.
    But yeah, there are all kinds of signifiers even behind-the-scenes ux wonks have going on, whether it’s what computer you use, or what applications you sling, or whether you buy into “persona design” or not, etc. And there are certainly signals we give our clients … best if we see them for what they are, though, as much as possible.

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  • Doug Montgomery

    Very charitable post (about the tribal identity or posing), and honest (the importance of ‘taste’ input from designers who specialise or excel at this) and clever (the three legged analogy). 

    One or two of my tutors try to impose a rigidly functionalist dogma down students throats and they would have a fit at your suggestion, as they have had with me for contesting them.

    I’m at this moment designing a project based on Pierre Bourdieu’s examination of taste and class in his book ‘Distinction’. I developed the scenario that in the year 2022 a lack of ‘taste’ has come to be regarded as some kind of affliction requiring treatment. This notion has been concocted by the government who are bound by EU commitments to environmental reform, but want one last consumerist hurrah by influencing the populace to replace any existing ‘poor taste’ goods (DFS Sofas etc) with Design Council approved goods on the pretext that products with ‘taste’ have longevity which satisfy EU sustainability principles. So, the government mandate an ‘inoculation’ campaign sponsored by Bayer Chemicals (aimed implicitly at the ‘lower’ classes) to cure the affliction of ‘bad taste’. 

    I designed packaging complete with instructions for use and a pamphlet describing how the ‘aesthetic competence’ test is evaluated – basically ‘sufferer’s’ are shown art, clothing, furniture etc, and asked to choose from a blind selection of products considered ‘bad’ to aesthetically ‘approved’, and then they are scored as individuals – but the ‘lower classes’ will be forcibly inoculated without recourse to the test.

    Its a deliberately crude and blunt solution as its supposed to be commissioned by a future dictatorial government.

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