Reading Response: The Substance of Style
Some of you might know that I am fascinated by product design. I feel like the psychology and science behind making a beautiful, functional product is seriously underestimated. A few months ago I read the book: The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness by Virginia Postrel. Postrel wrote the book as an afterthought to her Doctorate thesis, so it has a very academic tone and every argument is well-documented. The great thing about this book is that it used science and data to explain experiences that I previously defined as only qualitative. I loved understanding the technicalities of design and consumer behavior. Unfortunately, this book is not very well-organized. There were several Aha! moments for me while I was reading, but the chapters all overlapped and now I feel like it's hard to explain. So in an effort to understand everything I read, I thought I would write my own book report and point out the most interesting parts:
1. Aesthetics have inherent value and power.
The first thing Postrel mentions in this book is that aesthetics (or style, as she refers to it) have value. I think this is obvious, especially in an age of 11 inch computers, driverless cars, and retina-display cell phones. Aesthetics help us to see and understand the world around us. Postrel quotes the famous theorist, Ellen Dissanayake who says, "…Art is the practice of “making special,” a behavior designed to be “sensorily and emotionally gratifying and more than strictly necessary.” Postrel says that this "making special" is a universal and innate ability of human beings' evolved biological nature. She states, "Making special offers a useful insight into our aesthetic age. Having spent a century or more focused primarily on other goals—solving manufacturing problems, lowering costs, making goods and services widely available, increasing convenience, saving energy—we are increasingly engaged in making our world special. More people in more aspects of life are drawing pleasure and meaning from the way their persons, places, and things look and feel. Whenever we have the chance, we’re adding sensory, emotional appeal to ordinary function.” I could not agree more! However, the really interesting thing Postrel explains is that making special is INHERENT. Style is inherently important to us, regardless of the function it's attached to. Aesthetics have value because aesthetics provide pleasure, meaning, and usefulness, which may be SUBJECTIVE, but cannot be denied.
2. Aesthetics are a profitable good.
There was a time when products were created solely for function and form was ignored. But the truth is, products like that DON'T EXIST any more. We have demanded a world carefully designed and beautifully styled because we value aesthetics. But I think it's important to recognize that aesthetics are not the highest good. They are not the only good. But they are A good and we (business owners, product designers, and every day consumers) cannot escape them. In SoS (The Substance of Style), Postrel explains the economic value of aesthetics this way: "Curmudgeons may grouse about the price of its coffee, but Starbucks isn't just selling beverages. It's delivering a multisensory aesthetic experience, for which customers are willing to pay several times what coffee costs at a purely functional Formica-and-linoleum coffee shop." So in today's competitive marketplace, aesthetics is one of the best ways to differentiate yourself.
3. We can live in a world that is both pretty and smart.
There is this strange notion that using aesthetics to sell a product is a form of manipulation. Consumers are convinced that sensory impressions are somehow false and misleading. However, SoS argues that the rise of aesthetics comes from an innate need for pleasure, meaning, and usefulness. Postrel says, “Beauty is not a measure of goodness or truth, but neither is aesthetic pleasure a sure sign of decadence or a foolish waste of time. It is valuable on the margin, as one good among many. Aesthetics is pre-rational or non-rational, not irrational or antirational. Look and feel appeal directly to us visual, tactile, emotional creatures, but they do not inevitably override our cognitive faculties, much less our sense of right and wrong. The fear that we’ll get carried away, accepting a dumb but pretty world, is a worthwhile warning. Aesthetic abundance does pose that risk. But we will realize that fate only if we forget that aesthetics can be a complement to, not merely a substitute for other values.” Similar to the discussion above, aesthetics are just one good, not the ultimate good, in the modern marketplace. We can't ignore the need for a pretty, aesthetically pleasing world. But we also cannot ignore the need for a world that works. So rather than fear aesthetics as some form of devilish deceit, we can use aesthetics to create products that are both stylish and substantive. Donald Norman, the father of usability, said it best when he said, "Let the future of everyday things be ones that do their job, that are easy to use, and that provide both meaning and pleasure. We can demand that everyday objects be both smart and pretty.”
It's SO difficult to explain and summarize a subject that is usually dismissed as fluffy and meaningless, but I would just like to add that aesthetics (design, style, form, whatever you want to call it) is everywhere and we should be careful consumers of what we buy, read, and sell. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to increase their understanding of aesthetics in the marketplace and in the mind.