Style before substance

A new book that claims we are living in the Age of Aesthetics is persuasive enough to have influence beyond design circles, says Adrian Shaughnessy

It’s official: designers are the new Masters of the Universe. In American writer and economist Virginia Postrel’s fascinating book, The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture & Consciousness (HarperCollins), she discusses the pre-eminence of aesthetics in modern life. (In Postrel’s view, ‘aesthetics’ is an interchangeable term that can mean beauty, style, design and ‘look and feel’.) Her argument – a familiar one in design circles – is that it is aesthetics that ‘make the difference’ in a modern economy. As designers this is what we believe in. It’s what we tell our clients. Yet sometimes it feels as if we’re the only ones who think like this. According to Postrel’s elegantly constructed and entertaining book, it is no longer just designers and educated elites who believe this. It’s everyone.

‘When we decide how next to spend our time, money or creative effort,’ says Postrel, ‘aesthetics is increasingly likely to top our priorities.’ In her view we have entered The Aesthetic Age, and aesthetic decisions are now central to our lives.

As evidence of the new ‘aesthetic imperative’ that governs our lives, she cites the rapture with which US beauticians were received in post-Taliban Afghanistan. She visits the modest looking factory of GE Plastics (‘dedicated to science, engineering and ruthless financial expectations’) and finds a hot-house of aesthetic endeavour as scientists and engineers work to find the materials and colours that will be used to make the mobile phones and computer peripherals of the future. She invites us to consider the lowly toilet brush: ‘What sort of prestige could possibly accrue to a tool for cleaning toilets, however lovely or expensive its case might be? The look and feel of your toilet brush are just that – sensory pleasures, expressions of what you find appealing.’

So, there we have it. All we care about is how stuff looks. This is good news for designers: our skills are in demand as never before, it seems. There is opposition to this aesthetic-centric view, and Postrel deals with the alternative views head on. To the claim that an interest in aesthetics is an obsession with ‘surface’, and that aesthetics equate to luxury, she ripostes: ‘Our sensory side is as valid a part of our nature as is the capacity to speak or reason, and it is essential to both.’ She tackles the form and function debate in the same robust way: ‘One of the most prominent advocates of “usability” in industrial design,’ she states, ‘has recently become a proponent of more aesthetic design. Drawing on neuroscience research about how emotion affects performance, usability guru Donald Norman now advocates what he calls a ‘heretical’ view: “Attractive things work better.”‘

Postrel acknowledges that a fixation with ‘attractiveness’ can can result in discrimination and prejudice against the non-beautiful, the old and the racially different. She has been criticized for supporting globalisation, and I wince when she says, ‘Spectacular special effects and beautiful movie stars[…] offer universal aesthetic pleasure; clever dialogue which is cognitive and culture-bound doesn’t travel as well.’ Yes, but this leads to lousy films, resented by as many cultures as they are embraced by.

But Postrel’s instincts are, for the most part, spot on. She is no elitist, and acknowledges that aesthetics are a matter of personal sensibility. This, she maintains, results in more consumer choice, as manufacturers are forced to cater to a vast range of aesthetic tastes. Additionally, it makes us resistant to the diktats of big business when they attempt to use aesthetics to seduce us into buying unwanted goods. In Postrel’s vision, thanks to new methods of mass production (and global markets), it is now possible for everyone, not just the rich, to enjoy the sensual benefits of The Age of Aesthetics.

It is unusual to come across the subject of design – and graphic design in particular – treated seriously in a book intended for a general readership. Postrel has been criticised by one commentator for having a ‘spotty knowledge of design’. In fact, Postrel writes perceptively about design. In a recent interview, designer and Émigré founder Rudy VanderLans noted that whenever he encountered writing about design in a mainstream or non-professional publication, he was horrified. Design is well served in this respect by Postrel. Although an economist, her clearly stated argument is likely to reach non-professionals and lay decision-makers in a way design-world commentators, and designers, often fail to do.

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