The Substance of Style

Virginia Postrel is the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. She also writes the “Economic Scene” column for the New York Times and maintains the Dynamist blog.

Virginia Postrel is the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. She also writes the “Economic Scene” column for the New York Times and maintains the Dynamist blog.


In her presentation at SXSW Interactive, Postrel discussed the importance of aesthetics, how design comes into play, the role of expertise, and why people respond the way they do to aesthetically pleasing people, places, and things. What follows is a partial transcript of her talk.

I want to talk about some of the work I’ve done in my latest book, The Substance of Style, which began in the late ’90s. The world was starting to look a little different. At the time people attributed this to the boom and attributed it to irrational exuberance. We now care what our toaster looks like. We were in the age of the blobject, the iMac, and Bilbao. But looking at what was going on, I saw it as a broader phenomenon. There is an increasing emphasis on the look and feel of people, place, and things. It’s not just about products. There’s something broader and deeper going on.

We’re experiencing a rise in the value of aesthetics. I don’t mean the philosophy of art. I mean communicating through the senses. Aesthetics is not narrative. It’s pre-rational. Not irrational, pre-reational. As a designer, if you try to create aesthetic affects, you will go through some cognitive process. Ellen Dissanayake, author of Homo Aestheticus looked at art as making something special — “emotionally gratifying and more than strictly necessary.”

Another way of thinking about aethetics is thinking about why I don’t call it design. What I’m talking about is smaller than and broader than design. Design adds value through three aspects. The first is function. I talk about two other ways designers add value. The first is pleasure, any desired emotional response. Pleasure has two components. There are things that always give us pleasure, constants, and some of these are universal. Human beings like big eyes because they remind us of babies. Human beings like symmetry in facial features. Other things vary from person to person based on their biology. But there’s a contradiction here because human beings also like novelty. When you take that into the world of culture, what that gives us is fashion. If you read the magazines, you’ll see that color is back among the fashionistas — and just in time for spring. This is not a plot by clothing manufacturers and magazine editors. We exhibit fashion patterns even in non-commercial settings. More telling, there are fashions in baby names. We have the desire to be different, but we also have the desire to be the same.

The next value of design is meaning. It’s all about standing out and fitting in. You want to be different, and you want to be unique, but you don’t want to be totally unique. You tend to dress sort of like your friends or sort of like your colleagues. Go to Google Images and search by profession. You get group shots of people. They’re not in uniform, but they look similar. There’s a strong sense of association, as well as identity.

We can sum up the substance of style in two ways. I like pleasure. I talk about the aesthetic imperative. People have to pay attention, particularly in the world of business, to aesthetics. To improve quality on the margin, make things special by enhancing the look and feel of people, place, and things. As aesthetic competition increases, this is great for us as consumers. We get to enjoy a more stimulating environment. But as producers, it can be a real bear. It’s another thing you have to think about. Often business people as me, “How do we know how much to invest in aesthetics?” It’s like any question. How do you know how much to invest in new technology or hiring new people?

We’re seeing design creep into everything. We have increased populist interest in how do we bring aesthetics into my home? There’s desire, but there’s also a conflict involving expertise. If you knew what you were doing, this is what you would wear. That’s good expertise, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Then there’s bad expertise: You’re an idiot. I’m going to show you how your living room should be decorated, and I’m going to give you some clothes so you look like me.

We dont want that. We want expertise that understands how design and aesthetics work and wants to help you look like you. Transferring that knowledge of what is you is difficult. The head of GE Plastics Global Aesthetics Program told me that if they want to do more then sell a lot of plastics, they need to incorporate aesthetics and styling into their product development. In their design center in upstate New York, they have about 4,000 colors of plastic on display. They actually offer 35,000, and if they don’t have what you want, they can make up your own batch. They can also do custom effects, and they get 100-150% more for those special materials.

What’s the goal of all this? Tim Kelley, who designs really expensive tradeshow exhibits, says that it’s about creating an experience, not a back drop. People like to touch things, smell things. They like to do things that create a personal connection. The major touchstone of this, love them or hate them, is Starbucks. We’ve really seen this in places more than things. Starbucks decided a long time ago that they were selling an extensive sensory and emotional experience. When you think about pleasure and meaning, what they didn’t intend to stumble on is that Starbucks provides the pleasure, and the customers bring the meaning. That’s the social experience that you have there. Now everybody wants to be Starbucks: hotel lobbies, malls, airports, libraries, and churches.

What does that mean? For some, it means that people slavishly follow Starbucks’ aesthetics. That means that Starbucks’ designers have to hustle to keep different. And they do look different. Some look kind of the same, but it’s based in their era. At the base, what people want to do is design places in which people are comfortable hanging out.

This is all part of what I call the Ratchet Effect. We see more, we expect more. Our expectations continually rise. The kind of routine, make it look good, not super special, consciously designed design has become common. There’s no such thing as an undesigned graphic object, and there used to be. People are much more interested in expertise. When you have to do it yourself, you really appreciate that professionals know something you don’t. There’s also a rise in design by people who don’t have expertise. These are fliers from women who are looking for cleaning work. There is rise in expectation. There is a ratchet effect. In the past, they might have just left a handwritten note, but based on these fliers, who am I going to call first? Blondie might be the world’s best cleaning lady, but having a badly designed flier is going to hurt her.

The ratchet effect doesn’t just affect places and objects, it affects us as well. Dental care has gotten really good. They’ve gotten really good at making sure our teeth don’t fall out. So they’ve had to turned to cosmetic dentistry. That expertise has also moved into the home. Crest White Strips really do work. My teeth were as white as Tony Snow’s. There’s more intensity. That’s the ratchet effect. There are more aesthetics in more aspects of life — even toilet brushes. There’s more aesthetic variety and personalization. But there’s not one best way, and I’m not saying there’s more talent out there. I’m also not saying there’s more taste, but the more we’re exposed to aesthetics, we get a little pickier.

The point is not what style is used, it is that style is used. There are a whole lot of reasons. We have more money. There’s a tremendous amount of cultural pluralism. We have better technology, distribution, and trade. And there’s intense competition on price and function. All the things that have increased productivity have increased the importance of aesthetics. We can now make what would have been a smaller market larger.

I do want to dispel one common misconception. A lot of people will talk about Maslow’s pyramid. The argument is that human beings have a hierarchy of needs. First we need to have our physiological needs taken care of. Then there’s safety, social, and self-esteem. Then, when we’re really rich and at the very top, we can think about poetry and music. Consultant types would say that until about 1995, nobody could afford to think about aesthetics. This is completely wrong. If you go around the world to subsistence societies, people spend a lot of time on aesthetics. If they’re close to starving to death, what else can they get? What they do have is the ability to decorate their own environment at a low cost.

The real question is, given what we can spend — money, time, or talent — what we already have, and the relative prices of goods, what do we want next? That answer has changed. In the post-war era, the great advance was getting “not bad.” A 1970 Holiday Inn slogan was “The best surprise is no surprise.” Driving off the highway, you can know that a hotel room will be clean and that the bathroom will have that little paper ring. For a long time, that was genuine progress. That was a great thing — and not just in the hotel industry.

Now we want something special. You may want a unique experience. You dont want to live in a charming country inn, but you want to go to a charming country inn. You want something different. That’s not just a functional requirement, it’s about pleasure and meaning. In order to have this aesthetic diversity and a really strong identity, you have to have variety. Some people believe that it’s better to polarize shoppers instead of having a mass identity. The alternative is to have an aesthetic dictator. High modernism is exemplified in Harvard dorm rooms. There was a struggle between mass and class. What if a student doesn’t like the fixed way the dorm room is arranged?

Today there’s a different ideology. Good design is no longer about the perfect thing but about helping people build their own personal identities. What will express you — not the designer? Aesthetics is increasingly the killer app.