TCS Daily


Look and Feel

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Looks matter.  Everyone who has ever dated knows that.  Of course with people, as a large cautionary body of literature and country music makes plain, other qualities may come to the fore:  a pretty smile can famously hide a cheating heart.  But, interestingly, if people were all good, looks might actually matter more than they do.

 

We already see this with cars, which have improved a lot more than people have over the past couple of decades.  As Tim Blair notes in a review of the Mini Cooper:

 

Maybe I should give up this car-testing caper. Even ten years ago it was no big deal for a reasonably capable driver to take a mid-priced sedan to the limits of its adhesion. These days, with modern tyres, and especially in things as sharply designed as this Mini, the grip levels are so high that in ordinary-speedy driving you never get close to discovering where those limits are. By the time you do, you're traveling at speeds that make recovery ... er, problematic.

 

I have had the same experience.  I recently bought a new sports car (a

Mazda RX-8) and recently noted that taking it to the limits anywhere nearby would be near-suicidal.  It's an enormously capable car, but it's not the fastest or best-handling car around, even for the money  And that doesn't really matter, given how capable it is.  It's just the one whose look and feel I liked the best.  (And heck, if speed and handling were all I cared about, I'd buy a motorcycle.  Hmm, a motorcycle . . .  But I digress.)

 

The same is true with home appliances, where essential functionality is now taken for granted in ways that it wasn't not so long ago, so that the focus is increasingly on design. I recently bought some new kitchen appliances.  They work better than the old stove and dishwasher did, but again, their appeal really has more to do with the way they look and, well, feel. 

 

And, as Virginia Postrel argues in her new book, The Substance of Style:  How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, the value-added in an awful lot of products nowadays stems from design and aesthetics, rather than simply performing their basic tasks:

 

The twenty-first century isn't what the old movies imagined.  We citizens of the future don't wear conformist jumpsuits, live in utilitarian high-rises, or get our food in pills.  To the contrary, we are demanding and creating an enticing, stimulating, diverse and beautiful world.  We want our vacuum cleaners and mobile phones to sparkle, our bathroom faucets and desk accessories to express our personalities.  We expect every strip mall and city block to offer designer coffee, several different cuisines, a copy shop with do-it- yourself graphics workstations, and a nail salon for manicures on demand.

 

All true, more or less.  Of course, it's sometimes hard to draw a sharp line between form and function.  I recently visited a startup videogame company started by one of my former students.  He spent a lot of time showing me the game, Hostile Intent, and pointing out its many aesthetic features, particularly in terms of the realism of the  people and the terrain.  He waxed enthusiastic about the grass he was licensing from another company.  "It's amazing grass," he enthused.  (I remember hearing those words in a very different context in college, which is an indication of how either I, or the times, have changed, I guess.)  But in today's world, lots of people are out there writing software for things like grass -- making sure that it moves realistically in the wind, or when soldiers are creeping through it, or in response to explosions -- and then licensing it to other people for money.  Is that form?  Or function?  It's both, of course.  And the two are blending.

 

As I've noted before, we've got a long way to go in the design department, even when the underlying "works" are perfect.  And I think that Virginia Postrel is right to say that we'll see a greater emphasis on design -- and, in particular, design that appeals to people, not just designers -- over the next few decades than we've seen over the last few.  That won't change the world, exactly, but it'll remove a lot of petty frustrations from our lives, and make many of the things we use more enjoyable.  That's no small thing.
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