The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness

“Not long ago if someone told you that the hardware store would be a trendy place to hang out, you might have looked at them with a skeptical eye. If someone had told you that the top programs on television wouldn’t be sitcoms or dramas, but instead those that feature drab dwellings being refurbished and stylistically challenged people getting makeovers, you probably would have laughed.
Whether you have been paying attention or not we are living in an age of aesthetics. So says Virginia Postrel in her latest book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness. Postrel examines how the role of aesthetics and style are transforming our culture and economy in a variety of ways. In the process we get a better understanding of what this new age means for designers, decision makers, and the customers they hope to reach.

Not long ago if someone told you that the hardware store would be a trendy place to hang out, you might have looked at them with a skeptical eye. If someone had told you that the top programs on television wouldn’t be sitcoms or dramas, but instead those that feature drab dwellings being refurbished and stylistically challenged people getting makeovers, you probably would have laughed.

But that probably meant that you missed the dawn of the age of aesthetics. Today if you walk into a Home Depot on a Saturday morning you will see a lot more than stacks of lumber and rows of lighting fixtures. If you are watching carefully you will see throngs of people participating in workshops on painting, tiling, and building backyard ponds. Walk through a new shopping area and the architecture looks more like an Italian villa than a strip mall in Davenport, Iowa. These are just the kind of strange happenings The Substance of Style explains in vivid detail.

Postrel begins The Substance of Style with a few examples to illustrate how “aesthetics is the way we communicate through the senses.” After all, human beings are visual, tactile, and emotional creatures and we are drawn towards people, places, and things that give us sensory pleasure. Postrel points out that “’form follows emotion’ has supplanted ‘form follows function’.” How else do you explain the success of the iMac, Volkswagen Beetle, and the Michael Graves Toaster at Target?

The Substance of Style goes on to explain how the age of mass production gave way to the age of mass customization. The futurists who predicted we would all be walking around in the same monotone tunics were dead wrong. For most of the 20th Century “the broad public enjoyed the expanding benefits of standardization, convenience, and mass distribution” and “the big story was not the rise of aesthetics but the spread of predictable standards of minimum quality.” This was the “age of Wonder Bread and Holiday Inn” where quality became improved and more widely available, but sadly there was little or no variety for customers. Henry Ford typified the business sentiment of this age when he said, “The customer can have any color he wants so long as it’s black.”

By the late 1970s and early 1980s the gains made in mass production, distribution, and quality reached a critical mass. Virginia Postrel explains how the ability to produce variety and utility was the tipping point for “the beginning of a new economic and cultural movement, in which look and feel matter more than ever.𔄙 The cycle of individually produced items to mass-produced monotony and finally to mass-produced distinctive items was complete. The age of aesthetics had begun and suddenly style began to appear everywhere.

The Substance of Style notes that Starbucks “is to the age of aesthetics what McDonald’s was to the age of convenience or Ford was to the age of mass production.” What prompted millions of people to spend $3.3 billion on a cup of Starbucks’ coffee last year? Postrel’s answer is that companies like Starbucks have used aesthetics to give their customers a unique sensory experience, and their customers can’t get enough of it. That same focus on aesthetics by product designers is now being echoed by everyone from retailers to homebuilders, restaurants, hotels, and nearly every facet of our daily lives.

Aesthetics is no longer the luxury that it once was, and that has allowed people to pick and choose styles that appeal to them as individuals. Advances in technology and product design combined with the mixing of cultures have all allowed for a greater range of aesthetic choices. This has also meant a huge growth in industries that focus on personal aesthetics. The rise in the number of day spas, nail salons, piercing shops, tooth whitening products, and other appearance enhancing services are another indication that we are living in the age of aesthetics.

It is this facet of the age of aesthetics that seems to be drawing the most ire from critics. Postrel points out how “the very power of aesthetics makes its power suspect.” Outlet stores mimicking a Tuscan village are one thing, but many contend “surface and substance cannot coexist, that artifice inevitably detracts from truth.” Pundits allege that people are only left with a shallow, deceptive, and decadent “world of falsehoods.” Postrel confronts this widely held belief to show that style really can have substance.

To begin with, the author believes you have to throw out the absurd notion that aesthetics are meaningless and valueless. For some reason we have come to believe that “appearance must be worth either everything or nothing” instead of accepting that “aesthetic pleasure is an autonomous good, not the highest or the best but one of the many plural, sometimes conflicting, and frequently unconnected to sources of value.” The Substance of Style illustrates this point by noting that “colas are neither good nor evil, and neither is their packaging. The packaging design adds pleasure and meaning, and thus value, to morally neutral products.”

To keep things in perspective Postrel is quick to point out that “form has its own power and worth, but it does not inevitably trump content.” Aesthetics has influence over our decisions but it does not blind “us to all other values.” Instead the value of aesthetics in many cases is its ability to give individuals personalized identity. That sense of aesthetic identity prevails when “I like that merges into I’m like that.” The substance of style consists of its ability to signal identity and that reminds “ourselves and the world of what we think is important.”

The Substance of Style also delves into the broader implications of living in an aesthetic age. For all the choices and options available to customers there are a lot of roadblocks being put up. Postrel asserts, “when ‘design is everywhere, and everywhere is now designed’ whoever determines look and feel controls a great deal of economic and personal value.” Customers begin to “demand better design, and that demand inevitably generates conflict.” The results are limits on what you can and cannot do in a new housing development, what types of architecture are permitted in public spaces, and a reminder that “your ugly house bothers your neighbors; your ugly sofa does not.” The best response to the style police “is what we might call the Italian solution – to look the other way from the stuff we don’t like.”

So what does all of this mean for designers and business decision makers? At the outset of The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel emphatically states, “Aesthetics has become too important to be left to the aesthetics.” What she means is that people in a variety of professions need to understand the importance of aesthetics to their customers and to do something about it. Customers in today’s style-focused world have issued a challenge to potential corporate suitors: “Give us a way to be smart and pretty, and we’ll take it.”

Postrel quotes Don Norman, the well-known usability expert, and his view that “attractive things work better.“ Believing that smart and pretty can coexist is the first step to focusing on the aesthetic demands of your customers. “By bringing design to new areas or coming up with newly appealing styles, aesthetic innovators can reap rewards,” writes Postrel. The other reality is that paying attention to individual aesthetics is “a requirement to stay in the game.”

The Substance of Style is more than a surface-level synopsis of the importance of style in today’s culture. This is a serious and much needed book about the forces that are shaping today’s culture and economy. Virginia Postrel masterfully explains how the evolution of mass markets helped produce personalized aesthetics for the masses. Instead of ignoring the critics of such a trend, the book faces them head-on to point out just how much substance there is to style. Postrel’s examples are illuminating, her sources are well respected, and The Substance of Style offers a lot more than just a catchy title. Anyone who is serious about surviving in the age of aesthetics needs to read this book. The Substance of Style will not only show you what you might have been missing, but it also gives you some direction on what to do about it.


About the book:

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, Reviews | 10 Comments »

10 Comments

  • Luke

    October 1, 2003 at 2:50 am

    Looking at this from a software perspective – this all seems like another excuse for poor usability. No doubt the swathes of “experience designers” will take excess comfort that style is king once more.

    Of course attractive products are valued if the function and purpose is fullfilled, but very often “stylish” products conciously undo default behaviours and user expectations with “new and attractive” ways of doing user interfaces – L

  • Anthony Colfelt

    October 1, 2003 at 2:51 am

    “Postrel points out that “’form follows emotion’ has supplanted ‘form follows function’.” How else do you explain the success of the iMac, Volkswagen Beetle, and the Michael Graves Toaster at Target?”

    Sorry, this is just rubbish. Of course form still follows function. If the iMac, Volkswagen Beetle etc didn’t function exceptionally well, they’d have been a flop.

    The notion that people value aesthetics more now than they did then is a misnoma. People can afford aesthetics now, where before this was a luxury. As the population becomes more affluent and companies cotton on to the fact that people have always wanted aesthetics, goods become cheaper and more aesthetic.

    People in poorer countries (or westerners earlier this century) couldn’t care less about aesthetics. If something works, and they can afford it, then that’s enough for them. If aesthetic goods were cheap enough, they’d have those instead, because the desire for beauty and individuality is something that runs deeper than trend. It roots in the way humans value themselves. This isn’t transient, in my opinion.

  • Daan Hoogland

    October 1, 2003 at 4:05 am

    When you are to choose, between two items with the same functionality and quality and one of them looks beautifull and the other doesn’t, you’d probably choose the first one. When the functionality-criteria are met, the aesthetic choices become more important. and of course, Anthony, people cán afford aesthetics now; but isn’t that just the reason people use it to express their taste and with that their identity? Of course form follows function, but the story doesn’t criticize functionality in a whole and is set in a 1st world setting.

  • andrew

    October 1, 2003 at 6:07 am

    “People in poorer countries (or westerners earlier this century) couldn’t care less about aesthetics. If something works, and they can afford it, then that’s enough for them.”

    This is a pretty shallow dismissal of “poorer countries”, which themselves have exquisitely refined senses of taste. They just happen to be totally different then yours.

    Most of this book summary strikes me as a big “so what.” I guess that Postrel’s not really writing for an audience that’s been engaged with these issues for some time. Frankly, it sounds like an overlong article in ID or Wired. And incidently, book reviews are far more useful if the reviewer has a point of view about the book, rather than just restating its argument. Is there nothing worth criticizing in Postrel?

  • kevin steele

    October 1, 2003 at 8:21 am

    Aesthetics are more than just style, especially when creating interactive experiences. Aesthetic decisions that are driven by the meaning of a work create resonance. Let’s not forget that more senses are engaged by interactive media, and some interactive media is interested in more than just information delivery.

    One of the things I care a lot about is how projects feel. In the days of kiosk/cd-rom design we were able to carefully craft how inetractive objects felt, the subtle feedback that could be offered to communicate so much to the user. The very nature of the early web took so much out of the control of the designer and put it under the ‘control’ of the browser and the chaos of the unpredictable internet.

    Before the web became the main platform for interactive media we could create magic at that moment the audience made a choice, offering many levels of response. Just the right sound at the right moment, just the right transition that told the story of how the state was changing, just the right delay so that meaning registered. We could make something *feel* beautiful, responsive, solid.

    Suddenly with the web this was no loonger possible — the moment the audience made a choice the browser took over and offered an empty page and a long wait. And whether or not the link would work or fail, the first seconds felt the same. Apprehension…

    The flimsy feel and fickle behaviour of the early web made most aesthetic concerns a waste of designer, client and audience bandwidth. This is no longer the case.

  • Malcolm Dean

    October 1, 2003 at 6:03 pm

    Starbucks is not a new phenomenon. Coffee houses go back a few centuries, and the attraction remains the same: it’s not a matter of aesthetics, it’s a matter of gossip. Many social creatures require gathering places in which information is shared and discussed. If this activity occurs under the influence of a stimulant and accompanied by something sweet and nutritious, so much the better. Personally, I think Starbucks coffee sucks. But then, that’s just my aesthetics.

  • Phil

    October 2, 2003 at 6:28 am

    Interesting, but aesthetics has been part of product / industrial design ever since the industry has existed. If it is about pure aesthetics, isn’t that art?

  • lord

    October 3, 2003 at 2:00 pm

    “Before the web became the main platform for interactive media we could create magic… Suddenly with the web this was no loonger possible…”

    Sorry, but this was silly too. I never saw a magic cd-rom nor ever met a person who claimed to. Whatever magic you are talking about is something only designers care about. On the contrary, people describe to me the “magical” properties of the internet on a daily basis, and this has never been about aesthetics but almost always about some interaction with another person or service.

    Which is where I believe aesthetics come in. As social animals I believe that humans consider the question “how will having this make me look” far more than “how will having this make me feel.”

    That is why people don’t care what web sites look like, but the cut of their clothes or the shape of their car is a matter of profound concern.

  • Kevin Steele

    October 3, 2003 at 2:30 pm

    Actually, a lot more people than us designers were engaged by the interactive media my company Mackerel was doing between 1990 and 1995. Before people were jaded from years of unsatisfactory experiences with shovelware CD-ROMs and the early web, studios like ours were making projects that engaged and delighted.

    Sure, we had our share of misfires where the final result was less than we imagined, and a few things that just did not work right, but we made many successful pieces. A project that we made with the Royal Ontario Museum in 1993, Birdsong, is still entertaining and educating museumgoers ten years later.

    Some of our work created genuine excitement among the people who were exposed to it. Certainly we had the lustre of newness working for us, but I’m not pulling your leg or embellishing the truth when I say that there were moments of magic.

  • tom matrullo

    October 8, 2003 at 8:48 pm

    “Postrel begins The Substance of Style with a few examples to illustrate how ‘aesthetics is the way we communicate through the senses.’ ”

    “To keep things in perspective Postrel is quick to point out that ‘form has its own power and worth, but it does not inevitably trump content.’”

    These two quotes illustrate how discussions of aesthetics can oscillate between different fundamental definitions if the term. If aesthetics is the way we communicate through the senses, then one might rhetorically ask, how else do we communicate? Thus aesthetics assumes a large and substantial field of inquiry into communication and signification; in fact, it becomes equivalent to a field that would yoke semiotics and epistemology.

    But if aesthetics is reduced merely to packaging and form, then it can be easily separated from “content” and falls back into the very different notional arena of taste and beauty, where the stakes are less compelling than her argument might at first appear.

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