Talking with Virginia Postrel

“Functionality, properly understood, means doing what the end customer needs and wants the product to do. Adding pleasure may be more important than adding performance attributes. ”Virginia Postrel, former editor of Reason magazine, now writes the “Economic Scene” column for The New York Times, and her words have graced the pages of Forbes, Forbes ASAP, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Her first book, The Future and Its Enemies, was met with critical acclaim.

Postrel’s new book, The Substance of Style: How the Growth of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, explores the economic, cultural, social, personal, and political implications of the growing importance of aesthetics in business and society. Boxes and Arrows contributing writer Steve MacLaughlin caught up with Virginia Postrel to get her thoughts on the age of aesthetics and what it means for design professionals.

B&A: The issue of emotion and persuasion has been the source of a lot of discussion in the technology community lately. What would you say to those technology professionals who believe that adding aesthetics to what they do is just selling out or taking a short cut?

Postrel: Aesthetics isn’t a substitute for functionality, but functionality isn’t a substitute for aesthetics either. Not adding aesthetics is taking the short cut, substituting the designer’s idea of what’s important for the customer’s. Functionality, properly understood, means doing what the end customer needs and wants the product to do. Adding pleasure may be more important than adding performance attributes. To a programmer, additional computer speed may be a legitimate improvement while a pretty case isn’t. But to many customers, the case adds value while the speed doesn’t. That’s not because speed is unimportant. It’s because personal computers are already so fast that they can do what most people want them to do.

I bought a Visor Edge a couple of years ago mostly because I thought it was beautiful (though part of that beauty came from the flip up cover, which is also quite practical). Only after I had bought it did I discover just how useful a PDA is. I don’t need much functionality for my purposes—just a contacts database and a calendar–but I want a PDA that makes me happy when I look at it. If I were buying one today, I’d get a Palm Zire, which is simple and beautiful.

B&A: In the book you quote Don Norman, the well-known usability expert, and his view that “attractive things work better.” Norman admits that some think this is a “heretical” view, but he has some research to back up his argument. Are there other voices in the design community that believe that being “smart and pretty” is not only possible, but essential?

Postrel: The success of design firms like IDEO and frog demonstrates the value of “smart and pretty” as a strategy. They pay careful attention to how customers are going to use a product, but they don’t treat that functional study as a substitute for aesthetics. Their products work well, but they also look and feel good.

B&A: What would you say to today’s design students who are still being taught the same old rules? How can they prepare themselves for a design career in the age of aesthetics?

Postrel: It’s as much a matter of mental attitude as it is a question of skills. The skills taught in school provide a basis to build on. But the common idea, for instance, that “designers are problem solvers” doesn’t answer the question of what kinds of problems you’re supposed to solve. “How can I provide pleasure and meaning?” is as legitimate and important a question as “How can I make this work?” or “How can I create a product that is easy to manufacture?” Karim Rashid’s Garbino trash can is wildly successful because it’s an almost perfect design. It’s cheap and easy to manufacture in a variety of colors. It’s highly functional–it has handles built in and is shaped so that trash goes in and out easily. But the first thing most people notice about the Garbino is that it looks and feels great.

Thinking about look and feel can actually improve functionality, because it means you get in the habit of empathizing with the end user. It’s really a matter of thinking, “What will make the customer happy?” rather than “What will make me, the designer, happy?” (In the best case, of course, you’re both happy.) The nightmarish interface design that Alan Cooper excoriates (and that I wrote a popular Forbes ASAP column about) isn’t functional for consumers. But it’s easy for programmers.

B&A: You talk about the importance of building a structure for design and aesthetics to work within a company. How can designers help build a foundation for placing greater value on aesthetics in industries that are not known for their stylishness?

Postrel: This is a tough issue of corporate culture and organization, and it’s a long-term process. The first key to success is to avoid a couple of common mistakes that can make communicating with non-designers difficult.

The first mistake is to justify design’s importance by ignoring its unique contribution. Designers say “We solve problems” and “We can do strategy,” and they forget that everyone else is also solving problems and contributing to strategy. The question is what problems can you uniquely solve? Where’s your value-added? If you try to sell yourselves as another sort of engineer, the engineers will just scoff at you—and rightly so.

Yes, you contribute important functional qualities. They’re absolutely critical. But you also contribute style, and style is valuable in the marketplace, because real people—your customers—care about it. Again, the trick is to identify with the customer and to get your colleagues to see that doing that will make the organization more successful.

The second mistake is to swing in the opposite direction and push the style equivalent of basic research when the marketplace wants style’s equivalent of applied engineering. Among themselves, designers are always looking to push the aesthetic envelope. Professional prestige comes in large part from novelty and innovation, from exploring the frontiers of design. (This is even more true with graphic designers, who face fewer material constraints, than it is with product designers. Interface designers are somewhere in between.)

But the customer isn’t at the frontier. The consumer usually wants to build on what’s familiar—to have something different, but not too different. That doesn’t mean the customer is a rube or a philistine, any more than it means that avant garde designers are useless. Theoretical physics and engine mechanics are different, and both are valuable. So are cutting-edge design and less prestigious, more mundane design. It’s important to remember that “good design” depends on context—good design for whom, for what purpose?

Some of the most difficult websites to navigate, and the most likely to crash, are those created by designers for designers. The Art Center site used to crash my browser every time I visited it.

B&A: You mentioned that interface designers are somewhere between graphic designers and product designers on the aesthetic freedom spectrum because of the nature of their medium. This is a young field that is currently going through some growing pains and a bit of an identity crisis. Any thoughts on what interface designers might become when they grow up?

Postrel: The biggest difference between graphic design and interface design today is not so much the nature of the medium—which is, of course, different—but the relative immaturity of interface design. We haven’t yet seen the coalescing of a “dominant design”—the equivalent to the basic layout of a book page, the arrangement of the steering wheel and controls on a car, the shapes of knives, forks, and spoons, the idea of a suit with jacket and pants (or skirt)—within which designers experiment. The advantage for designers is that there’s a lot of room for creativity and innovation, because user expectations are still developing. The downside is that complete failure is more likely. So is “design” that reflects what’s easy for programmers rather than what really works for the user.

I don’t know what dominant designs will emerge, but interface designers will know the field has grown up when a new design proceeds from basic structures that have proven themselves effective. Designers won’t have to invent the steering wheel.

B&A: In a business environment where everyone is looking for ROI to justify expenses it is usually the marketing or design departments that get cut first. Isn’t this just a short-term band-aid that could be causing more long-term harm to these companies?

Postrel: It may be, though it depends on the particular company’s strategy—Wal-Mart is not Target-—and on what the alternative is. Outsourcing design isn’t the same as not doing design, for instance. And companies that cut marketing and design first may be companies that aren’t using those departments particularly effectively in the first place. They don’t understand the importance of these functions, so they don’t get enough value from them, so cutbacks become justified.

B&A: The book discusses the variety of different groups and stylistic preferences, and how catering to these micro-markets will only become more important in the age of aesthetics. Do you have to be a member of one of these distinct groups to design for them?

Postrel: If you’re designing for a group you belong to—essentially designing for yourself–you have an advantage, because you’ll have tacit knowledge that’s hard to get from the outside. That said, you don’t have to be in a group to design for it. You have to be able to empathize with its members, to understand what they need and where they find pleasure and meaning. That may involve close study and, say, the use of rapid prototyping to get lots of feedback. Or it may be mostly a matter of sympathetic imagination. If you’re successful, of course, the end user may apply your design in ways you absolutely didn’t expect–because you’ve encouraged their imagination.

B&A: A popular phrase in the design world these days is: “Show me the value.” A lot of specialists in the fields of interaction design and user experience design struggle with this issue. What are some ways for them to better express the value they bring to employers or customers?

Postrel: The value of design comes from its ability to provide three things to customers: function, pleasure, and meaning. For interface designers, function is still a frontier. You aren’t designing toilet brush holders, where function is already well understood. But my message to designers of all kinds is not to sell themselves short by only emphasizing function. Designers know ways to create aesthetic pleasure that other specialists, who may understand things about function, simply don’t know. Customers value that pleasure, so they’ll pay more for a pleasurable experience. The trick, of course, is to figure out what *customers* will enjoy and, hence, value, which may or may not be the same things that designers themselves enjoy and value. Designers are often bored with things that still excite customers and want something more cutting-edge. That can make it hard to communicate the value of design to employers. It’s important not to confuse the design equivalent of basic research with the design equivalent of applied engineering. In the short run, value comes from the “applied engineering,” while in the long run new ideas emerge from the “basic research.”

B&A: Throughout the book you talk about the constant backlash from critics who are appalled by the notion of personalized aesthetics that break all of their rules. Are these “experts” just afraid of the inmates running the asylum or do they have some valid concerns?

Postrel: Specialists do know things that the rest of us don’t. They’ve learned patterns that work. This is as true of aesthetics as it is of writing or plumbing. Nine times out of ten, a brochure designed by someone with training in graphic design is going to look better—to the general public, not just to other designers—than a brochure designed by someone with no training. The tenth brochure will either be by an amateur with a great eye or a professional who’s pushing the envelope.

But that’s not the end of the story. Amateurs can learn by doing, and they have access to lots of new sources of aesthetic information, including software that has some of that professional knowledge embedded in it. Over time, I would expect a certain amount of aesthetic training to become part of basic education, just as people learn to write. (Most people can’t write any better than they can design, which is why I have a job, but that doesn’t mean nobody but professionals and gifted amateurs writes.)

Also, there’s a difference between expertise and gatekeeping. Expertise tells you how to achieve what you find aesthetically pleasing. Gatekeeping tells you what you should find aesthetically pleasing. It’s the gatekeepers who are upset—people who want to dictate the one true style, whether they’re arbiters of fashions in clothing or in architecture.

B&A: You tell the tale of a Chicago restaurant that ignored the importance of aesthetics while their competitors really focused on creating a unique dining environment for customers. The restaurant eventually goes under and the stylish restaurants thrive. Does this create an aesthetics arms race where if you are not stylish you risk losing everything, but if you are stylish the best you can hope for is to simply keep up with the competition?

Postrel: In some highly competitive businesses, such as restaurants, that is a likely outcome. The gains will go to the consumers, not to the producers’ bottom lines. But that’s not the whole story, because aesthetic leaders often command a premium, because they make smart, though sometimes costly, investments and manage to stay ahead of the competition. There’s an arms race in microprocessor manufacturing, but Intel is still profitable. There’s an arms race in retailing logistics, but Wal-Mart is still ahead of its competition. An “arms race” in aesthetics simply means that style has become another important part of operations, subject to the same competitive pressures as the rest of the business.

B&A: Have the ebbs and flows of the economy in recent years done anything to stem the tide of the aesthetic age? Is the demand for more aesthetics waterproofed from a struggling economy?

Postrel: The best answer to this question is the first paragraph of the last chapter:

“The aesthetic imperative is here to stay. The indicators may fluctuate with the economy—fewer new companies that need logos, advertising, and websites mean less work for graphic designers; fewer new products mean less work for industrial designers; fewer new hotels or restaurants mean less work for interior designers—but the underlying phenomenon remains strong. Every startup, product, or public space calls for an aesthetic touch. Personal appearance demands new forms of attention and offers new sources of pleasure and meaning. Aesthetic proliferation gives us more choices, opportunities, and responsibility than ever before. We expect look and feel to express, and to help establish, the identity of people, places, and things. What once was good enough isn’t any longer. Function alone does not suffice.”

Another way of putting it is that the total demand for aesthetics varies with the business cycle, as does the demand for other goods. But the relative importance of aesthetics—its proportion compared to other goods—has increased.

B&A: How long might the age of aesthetics last? Do we one day risk becoming desensitized to all this sensory overload? What happens after the age of aesthetics?

Postrel: It’s a long-term trend but how long, I don’t know. That depends to some extent on what other sources of new value-added emerge. Here’s what I wrote in the book, and it’s as far as I’m willing to push the prediction:

“The innovations that today seem exciting, disturbing, or both will eventually become the background of our lives. We won’t notice them unless they’re missing. Like convenience or hygiene, instant communication or rapid transportation, look and feel will simply be part of modern, civilized life. We’ll assume they were always there, like indoor plumbing or recorded music—that we couldn’t possibly have lived without their pervasive presence.

New styles and new aesthetic technologies will continue to develop, of course, and old ones to evolve or improve, but at some point aesthetics will no longer be the frontier. When we decide how next to spend our time, money, or creative effort, something else will top our priorities. Something else will disturb the familiar ways of business and culture. Something else will challenge our conventional notions of ‘real’ value. That something else may be radically new, the product of currently far-fetched technologies. It may be a major improvement in an existing good—a faster, cleaner form of transportation, an instantaneous mode of manufacturing. It may be as ancient as storytelling or exploration.”

We’ve already become desensitized in one sense: We take a lot of aesthetic quality for granted, even though it’s only a few years old. But in another sense, we’re becoming more keenly sensitized, able to notice more subtle changes or differences while also playing with new combinations.


Steve MacLaughlin is an experienced Interaction Architect who has helped develop award winning sites for a variety of Fortune 500 firms, governmental agencies, and educational institutions. Steve has taught the fundamentals of interactive design at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and MIME Program and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. MacLaughlin holds a M.S. Degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University. His new weblog, Strathlachlan.com, covers a range of issues and topics.

Posted in Book Reviews, Interviews | 7 Comments »

7 Comments

  • Kevin Pearce

    September 30, 2003 at 8:42 am

    The interview was an unexpected treat. I thought the book sounded kinda flimsy, but from reading her take what we do I was impressed.

  • nova silverpill

    January 12, 2004 at 11:56 pm

    shorter postrel: it’s at target, so it’s cool.

    blah. pointless, self-important pointification from a self-described “libertarian” and, thusly, a natural born contrarian.

    anyone who links so vociferously to Instapundit/idiot from her own blog invalidates whatever opinions she claims as her own.

    at least reason.com is well designed.

  • Ralph Mcginnis

    January 4, 2006 at 10:28 pm

    There is a “growth in aesthetic value?” What universe do you live in?

  • daria slivka

    January 13, 2006 at 9:32 pm

    “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” – william morris

    As consumers of so much marketed to so many, I believe we’re seduced and deluded in ways we don’t even recognize. I question whether we’re really more sophisticated consumers of “aesthetics” and “smart design”, or just better-trained sheep.

    I’m all for //smart & pretty// when it produces value; don’t make me pay for “pretty” in my plumbing or circuitry. Too much for too little. A little restraint, please.

    P.S. – The Honeywell thermostat Postrel rails against in her Forbes FYI article was replaced by a new generation of “easy-to-use” devices. Or maybe not; in Dec 2005, from the pulpit of his daily talk show, Regis Philbin screamed his frustration with his new Honeywell programmable thermostat….

  • Robert Bennett

    March 1, 2006 at 4:50 am

    Personally, I don’t find this pointless at all. From the aesthetic imperative to the switch from the knowledge worker to a model where most white-collar jobs are being outsourced to India and beyond, the idea that one need to know how and why to differentiate their product/design/site/whatever is very on target.

  • Ralph Mcginnis is dumb

    May 22, 2006 at 2:06 am

    Well as my friend Ralph above so excellently proved, a level, a rarefied degree of mentality is needed for thi sort of discussion, which perhaps, our dear boy Ralph has not yet attained, and if not by now, probably won’t in this lifetime.

    Aesthetic value isn’t something that is exists in stasis. Knowledge grows from the beginning of our mind, to its end. A valuation of beauty, and lack thereof, must to be granted a life expectancy and a waxing and waning, a growth period. You can’t simply adhere to one line of ability throughout years and years of practice, without some graduation of exponential increase in knowledge. And Appreciation is one form of knowledge, so yes, Aesthetic Value is something that most certainly can grow, brainiac.

  • Ralph Mcginnis

    June 12, 2006 at 10:07 pm

    Um, Mr. Owl, I didn’t say anything about it not being able to grow… I was commenting on Postrel’s thesis, which jumps off from the point that our culture has a growing appreciation for Aesthetic Value…. which I think is ridiculous. Society is as tacky as ever.

Sorry, comments are closed.