Taste and Specification

Taste in product creation overlaps a lot with design: doing it well requires it to be valued, rewarded, and embedded in the company’s culture and upper leadership.

That is a quote from Marco Arment‘s post titled Time and Taste. An excellent post as usual from Marco, and I would like to elaborate on the taste aspect.

Specification is not the Product

Any product is always built to a specification. A 4-inch touch-sensitive screen, 1GB RAM, 8GB memory, expansion via SD card slots and so on. Yet the result, when one considers an Android phone, feels like something a one-eyed drunkard put together, after pondering nuances with co-drunkards in a noisy section of a 3rd world bazaar.

Yes it is manufactured to specification but the thing functions in a way that makes you feel disappointed every damn time. That experience betrays lack of taste at every point from, and between, producer to consumer. Of course there will be a market for poorly designed products/services. You could argue about affordability, demographic needs, wider price points and so on. But a producer of such tasteless goods is only a slightly refined version of crooks who steal from children.

Aesthetic Escapes Specification

What is taste? Hard to describe but taste can be i) an aesthetic sensibility ii) an outcome of a specific world-view or iii) result of a reasoned belief. Taste, like reasoning, is a skill of mental cognition. Everything needs to be actively thought about, critiqued and most important savored for what it is beyond its functionality .

Put simply, if specification is prose then taste would be poetry. A specification can never capture beauty and feeling.

Why should you care? Tasteful products have competitive differentiation built-in. Of course it requires an audience with taste. The challenge will be to identify this audience, if not to work towards educating and building up an audience with taste. That done, you don’t have to play the “price drop” game anymore. And taste is hard to copy too. Your competitor can steal a feature or your style but they can seldom be you or your product.

Where does taste stand in your scheme of things? Does your organization have it, encourage it?

What is Design?

Design is a loaded term, Wikipedia’s states there is actually no formal definition for design and goes on to provide a typical scientific definition, which is a fairly useless way of describing anything. Dan Saffer’s presentation on designing with technology offers two key quotes that provide a perspective on design that I found both useful and insightful.

Design is Not Just Problem Solving

Some people(they are wrong) say design is about solving problems. Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention.

So, design is about cultural invention. Not just solving the problem, not just providing a plan to accomplish a goal. But to go beyond, perhaps by little or preferably by much. True design invents a culture.

And that is not a humbug definition. Imagine the impact of a Sony Walkman that allowed us to carry our music with us. Or perhaps the mobile phone, which allowed us to call a person instead of a location. Each can be seen to have invented a culture, or at least influenced it significantly.

Design is Profound

Good products change the way we think about that type of product. Great products change the way we think about the world.

A good product influences our thinking about the whole class of similar products. But great products influence our perception of the world. This is a permanent shift in perspective.

Think about that for a moment. Inventing a culture, a shared perspective that unveils some hitherto hidden aspect of the product, service or perhaps in the experience of it.

Beyond Form & Function

True design is not just about form and function. Beyond form and function is the aesthetic experience. Imagine how the iPod and iPad raise our expectations of what a mobile and tablet device should and can be. The BlackBerry, which was the mobile device of choice until the iPhone, is now a bore and a drudge.

With form, function and aesthetic experience sorted there is something much subtler and deeper that can be possible, something that opens us to a higher plane of thought and experience. This is almost philosophical territory.

Think about how the night sky riddled with the eyes of light almost always leaves you humbled. Such a profound experience is the goal of great design. We might not always reach that goal with technology based products but remember, an inch closer to great design is an inch away from mediocrity.