The Substance of Style

I just finished reading Virginia Postrel's �Substance of Style� which my (ever vigilant and savvy) Mom gave me as a gift. It's a great book. It's short, it's focused, it has some great ideas in it, and the ideas are presented with enough backing that it can be the start of a discussion, rather than handwaving.

One of the most valuable points it makes is that humans need decoration as much as utility, that �form follows function� denies a basic human desire to have things be esthetically pleasing, that esthetics is fundamental to how we judge the quality of experience.

This statement resonates with me on a bunch of levels, and with a number of ideas I've been exposed to lately:

  • In sales, a traditional way to sell is to push features, functionality, without taking into account the underlying needs of the audience, many of which may have nothing to do with the features of the solution, but with satisfy other emotional needs. At Adaptive Path we've taken to trying to understand prospective clients' problems very thoroughly, to find out what they need, which is often not what they're asking for when they come to us. Since the product of our work is often abstract this means that we have to address the presentation of our results as seriously as the content. In addition to what we're going to do for our clients, how can we package and present it so that it has the most impact within their organization? The Minutemen have a song ("Shit from an Old Notebook" on Double Nickels on the Dime) that goes
    let the products sell themselves
    fuck advertising and commercial psychology
    psychological methods to sell should be destroyed
    because of their own blind involvement
    in their own conditioned closed minds
    the unit bonded together
    let yourself be heard
    And all respect to D.Boon, but he was wrong. Admirably idealistic, but wrong. Which brings me to the next idea,
  • The surface matters because we superficialy judge things even though we're not "supposed" to. Lakoff and Johnson talk about how Westerners use metaphor of �essenses� to understand morality. The metaphor states that there's an essence to people which defines what they really are. The surface is seen to be separate from the essence and the essence is immutable once set. Someone who did a bad thing is �bad� forever, because they have shown that they have a bad essence. Someone who did good things, a hero, is difficult to imagine being bad, because they have a good essence. But woe to those heroes that show themselves as fallible, that their surfaces are not identical to their essence: Michael Jackson's behavior went from being charmingly eccentric to irredeemably suspect without really changing all that much, but our perception of his essence changed. According to Lakhoff and Johnson, that's because we feel that he betrayed his evil essence by pretending to be good (grabbing his crotch in videos was merely cute, rather than threatening, then one day it was weird). Britney Spears used this dichotomy brilliantly by playing someone with a pure essence who was just �being bad� in jest. However, the minute she actually does something racy, such as admitting to having had sex, doubt appears, the jest comes off as sinister, and record sales drop. Postrel talks about these same issues:
    Critics of ornament have aimed some of their sharpest attacks at bodily decoration�at all the ways in which individuals create �false� selves and at the temptation to judge people by their appearance.
    We are creatures of first impressions, surface judgments and sensual experience. In a world of teeming with information this becomes especially important, since we have less time to evaluate beyond the surface. Pretending that we can see the essence of things is one way to help us filter through the deluge in the short term, but it denies how we actually work. Moreover, since we relate to objects anthropomorphically, I believe that all of these ideas also apply to our relationship to objects. As Postrel puts it: I like that. I'm like that.
  • Henry Petroski reaches the same conclusion in another very good book, �The Evolution of Useful Things,� where his studies of common functional objects (forks, tin cans, paperclips, etc.) reveal that, in his words,
    form follows fashion
    Even in the design of paperclips.
To me Postrel's book also shows the critical importance of understanding people's needs and desires when creating technology. Although she is coming at it as an economist, talking about externalities and such, it's an analysis of how people balance their desires against their needs against the desires and needs of others. It's a psychological and social analysis of the impact of design. The interaction between people and technology is designed, so all of these ideas apply equally well to the design of technology as they do to decoration and fashion.

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eft: 1. I don't think that making a blanket statement like "d.boon was never wrong about anything" is particularly meaningful. I'm sure he was, as I'm pretty sure he'd say if he was alive. 2. He was certainly trying to make a point there. What he wrote down in his notebook had meaning to him, and it had meaning to him when he chose to pull it from all of his writing for his song, so I'm pretty certain it said what he meant, and what he meant was that people should evaluate things on their own inherent merits, rather than on what he saw as superficial elements. I disagree with that, as I stated above.

i respect the notion that you are trying to illustrate a point about something, however, d.boon was never wrong about anything...furthermore, the brilliance of "shit from an old notebook" is that it is in fact that it actually is shit from an old notebook. an example of one technique that watt and boon were using on "double nickles", sort of "found art" type of deal...another example being "take 5, d" where watt reads a note from his landlady removing articles here and there one would assume and giving an effect of say w.c.w. in his poem about eating plums, also an actual note to his wife.

some sidedishes:

- "One of the most valuable points it makes is that humans need decoration as much as utility, that “form follows function” denies a basic human desire to have things be esthetically pleasing, that esthetics is fundamental to how we judge the quality of experience."

Adolf Loos, and his book Ornament and Crime (1906). In a very strong display of reasons, the architect states (among other things) that ornament is not intrinsec to design, therefore aesthetics of design do not relate to ornament inclusively. A design oeuvre can be aesthetically independent of decoration, being ornament an evil since "it forces craftsmen to do unnecessary work and thus deprives them of initiative, or which contributes to the shortening of the useful life of ordinary items by creating ever changing fashions"[1].

"while finished goods today may not appear to have excessive ornamentation, products with new functions are constantly being designed, and it has become possible to manufacture infinite variations of similar items"[2].
( [1][2] )

- can it be argued that it can be blamed on the industrial production of objects and the technological improvements leading to the situation quoted above[2]?

- can it be argued that also to blame is the advertisement industry, and the new product necessity?
( html version )
( document )

i am really asking...




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This page contains a single entry by Mike Kuniavsky published on October 15, 2003 6:08 PM.

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