by Jin, 06-11-09 // 11 comments

We have bought two houses in the past five years. One aspect I loved about the whole house hunting experience was going to strangers’ dwellings to see how they decorate. It was almost voyeuristic. I was always intrigued by those who painted their walls with clashing colors(or worse, floral wallpapers), or had mismatching and awkwardly arranged furniture. Every time I made a comment about it to my wife, I felt guilty. There I was, in someone else’s house, talking crap about their stuff.

I have the same observations about how people dress themselves. Same drill: mismatching colors, textures and styles. Of course, all my judgments are based on my own preference. In the scenarios listed, there are reasons why people decorate or dress the the way they do. Maybe it’s financial, or maybe it’s because they simply don’t care.

Or maybe, they just have bad taste.

There, I said the T word. I actually resent calling out on people’s (lack of) tastes. It makes me feel like a pretentious prick. What people do in their personal lives doesn’t concern me. However, having good taste is  extremely important when it comes to designing for the public.

I’ve sat on many interviews for web designers in the past. When I review their CV or portfolio site, the first thing I look for is if they have good taste. This isn’t the same as how competent they are with graphic softwares or how knowledgeable they are with code. Tools can be learned and mastered over time. Developing good taste on the other hand, takes a lot longer. Sometimes, I even wonder if it is something of nature, rather than nurture.

Good taste determines how elegant and polished the end product is. Some may dismiss it as “fluff” or superficial, self absorbed hipster talk. “As long as it’s functional.” I don’t buy that and never have. When it comes to product or graphic/web design, how it looks and feel are just as important as how it functions. For a product, it begins at packaging; for a web site, the impression is established within the first few seconds of visit.

Form follows function-that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.

- Frank Lloyd Wright

I don’t think having a formal design training is necessary for having good taste. Some of the clients, PMs and programmers I’ve worked with definitely had “an eye” for the aesthetics. Although they may not be able to execute it, but they knew if something looked and felt good or not, therefore were able to offer valuable critiques. On the other hand, those who didn’t were just a nightmare to work with, and often hindered the quality of the delivery.

Last week I read Dustin Curtis’ follow up article on his AA.com redesign. I feel Mr X’s pain, and agree with Dustin’s view on the importance of having a good taste:

There’s a common attribute that makes for good designers, good engineers, good employees, and good companies. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out what it was. Was it practice? Was it skill? Was it innate ability? Turns out, it’s none of those. It’s taste.

What constitutes good taste? I’ll leave the floor open for that one.


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Will 06-11-09

I love reading your posts, Jin, but what keeps me coming to the site instead of just reading it in GReader is that design here with the post specific backgrounds. Imagine my surprise to see a post on decorating feature your basic background.

So what is it? You didn’t care or have such high taste that the appropriate background could not be found? (said with a wink and tongue planted in cheek)

Jin 06-11-09

@Will, thanks for the kind words. Well, there is a background for this post. That is, a blank, soothing canvas to paint your own imagination with. Honestly I don’t think there would be a single appropriate image to go with an article on taste.

Aja 06-11-09

A subtle blend of trend and tradition, a working knowledge of what is soothing to the eye but also elicits a particular (positive) emotion. Taste is hard to quantify, but is usually instantly recognizable in others. And I’m not talking personal taste, but a sort of collective taste. I think taste, at least in part, is the ability to look past the sparkle and shine (and perhaps personal investment) one has in a website, photograph, piece of art, or trend and recognize the character of a solid foundation… or a shaky one.

Jin 06-12-09

@Aja, beautifully put. I especially like how you pointed out taste, as collective rather than personal. I think good designers should be conscious about the distinction of personal preference and common taste.

Will 06-12-09

@Jin but there is a background that would go for an article on taste. I can think of many. What you have done here isn’t even a soothing blank canvas. It is just blank. It is the unimaginative non-response. It is safe. If this post were a car it would be a silver, black, or white Honda. The bland, safe choice of the dull. (Don’t know what you drive but now curious). But your blog is YOUR blog and whould be to your taste. Put what you want up there. Or put the exact opposite; the kitchiest, most tasteless, and bizarre monstrosity of design you can find. Just be careful you don’t do it in some hipster way that you somehow make it cool.

Or perhaps a real blank canvas texture should be what you put up. It would actually be quite appropriate after your response. All I think when I see it now is Vanilla. Plain Vanilla…. *runs out to get a milkshake on this hot day*

mcowell 06-12-09

I think I’m one of those people the have bad taste with how I dress. Mainly because I wear what I’m conformable in not what other people think I should be wearing. A pair of blue jean and t-shirt is all I ever wear, it could freezing outside and that’s what I would be wearing. All the woman in my life at some point have tried to dress me but they soon stopped. I don’t think I have bad taste it’s just that I’m conformable in my blue jean…. and I hate shopping

Michael 06-12-09

Sense I can’t edited my last post.. Love the new blog, keep up the good work

Kim H 06-24-09

How would you describe taste, though? It could be that these two colors clash; but perhaps in your eye they clash, while to others they might seem to compliment one another. We could get into color theory et cetera, but my mother who sews has refuted my claims several times that red and green simply do not go well together, or that this pattern is too busy for that pattern on the cloth. On the other hand, for the most part, I do not always dress with good taste, unless I am going to work; my ability to match colors and patterns, unfortunately, has a tendency to only go as far as what I do on the computer screen. Past that, I am hopeless and floundering, especially with fashion.

As far as learning design and developing taste goes, you can have all the design degrees you want and still be a terrible designer. Everything I learned about design was from my own experiences, and seeing what other designers were doing.

Designers have a hard job, in a way, though a very fascinating one. They must create something appealing and beautiful and unique, and at the same time make it functional. They say function over form, but I believe that in this realm, the two go hand-in-hand.

Jin 06-24-09

@Kim, I think in the case of “taste,” there’s personal preferences, then there’s a general consensus of what’s aesthetically acceptable. You’re right, it’s a hard job for designers to find the balance. I do believe elegance is not restricted to certain “styles.”

To respond to Will comment(Sorry Will I’m late on this), If I were to put up a background image for this particular blog, it’d be something I find pleasing(a piece of Mid-Century furniture, or some Zen garden scene) etc. But it’d just be my taste. but I could also put up something that’s not my style, but I can respect the elegance(for example, some Baroque/Country styles).

You’re also correct about a design education doesn’t always result in good taste. I think the best way to develop a taste is through observation. It has a lot to do with psychology and sociology.

Magnus Falk 07-06-09

Great blog, found you through Atwood. Just thought I’d let you know that your heading font renders blocky in Opera (at least in 10, but then again I’m using the beta). Anyways, I know I’d be anal about that, and I’m not even a designer! =P

Jin 07-07-09

@Magnus, thanks for letting me know. I honestly didn’t test the site with Opera since I made some typography changes recently. Thanks.