Anton Ego, Food critic from “Ratatouille”

On Taste, Part 3

Or, how to improve your taste if it sucks.

Julie Zhuo
May 23, 2013 · 5 min read

Want to fill the void that Roger Ebert left with his passing? Hone your ability to spot a good design out in the wild? Not get made fun of by your friends for enjoying Nickelback a little too much? Then these six steps are for you. (Read Part 1 and Part 2 for more background.)

1) Believe there is such a thing as good taste.

The rest of this article is probably worthless to you if you don’t buy that “good” and “bad” taste exist. I discuss this in an earlier article, and Paul Graham writes one hell of a good essay about how the principles of what is elegant and beautiful in different fields are eerily similar. But if you don’t buy that there is some general scale of quality in every creative endeavor, then pretend this is a choose-your-own-adventure book and right here is the ending where you meet your untimely demise. (On the bright side, at least you’re saved the effort of reading the other 203 pages.)

Now, it must be said: just because goodness has some scale of measurement (vague though that scale may be), it doesn’t mean you have to care. Most of the time, our gut reaction of cool or sucks is all that matters. (Leave Jonathan Franzen to those who are more literary than me—I could not bring myself to finish his last book.) After all, life’s too short to constantly be that snobby friend who has to turn every opinion into an intellectual exercise.

But—and this is an important but—if a certain creative endeavor is your profession or your passion or your life’s work, then it’s worth investing in your taste. Your work will only be as good as that. So it stands to reason that if you care about doing great work, you’re going to need to have great taste.

2) Identify the folks who are in possession of good taste.

The easiest way to do this is to start creating a a list of people whose stories or movies or designs leave you shaking your head in wonder, or whose analysis or insights leave you nodding your head in vehement agreement. (Need help finding those folks? Never fear! The world we live in is quite enamored of Top N lists, which means somewhere out there, you can probably find a Top 30 Fashionable Wiccan Technologists Under 20, or whatever area you’re wanting to improve in.)

In all seriousness though, start with people who are generally well-respected in their field of choice. Figure out who those people admire/follow/talk about. Add them to your list. Repeat.

3) Immerse yourself in their values.

Now that you have a list, it’s time to get deep into their work. Use their apps. Pore through their portfolios. Watch their movies. Read their books. Do they have a blog they write or blogs that they enjoy reading? Add those to your RSS reader. Are there lectures or interviews they’ve given available to watch? Cozy into an armchair and flip on the speakers. Are they active on social media? Get trigger-happy with that follow button.

Watching a hundred movies will probably teach you a thing or two about good filmmaking, but you’ll learn ten times that if you see those movies through the lens of those at the top of their discipline. Which movies did they consider great? Which didn’t they? Why? How do they approach their work? What truths have they uncovered? What are some common criticisms lobbed in their direction? (Hey, they’re human too.) This is precisely why universities exist. Because learning from the best is the best way to learn.

4) Always be critiquing.

It’s easy to boil anything down into cool or sucks, but improving your taste demands a more critical eye. What did you like, and why? The creators of the thing you are analyzing—whether it’s a design, a book, a movie, an algorithm—made certain decisions. Did you agree with all those decisions? Would you have made different ones? Were any of those decisions non-obvious?

When I was just starting out as a designer, I put on my critic’s hat when it came to my own work but rarely took the time to think deeply about other websites and apps. I was too busy just using them for whatever purpose they served. But I noticed that the designers I admired paid close attention to the details. They could recite which apps used which navigation paradigms, and how that affected the way you interacted with the app. They compared and contrasted visual styles. They identified clever interactions and swapped theories about effective and ineffective patterns.

A critical eye is like a muscle, and it gets better with practice. If you’re a designer, don’t just use apps, study them. If you’re a writer, take the time to close your eyes and ponder how you felt about a book after you read the last sentence. Do this often, even if it feels silly and unnatural. It’s a thinking exercise. All it takes is time and discipline.

5) Calibrate your thinking with others.

No person is an island. You could formulate a thousand opinions about a thousand different things, but who knows if they’re insightful or if they’re crap if you keep them to yourself. So share how you feel about a certain app or album or movie with others. Get specific. Discuss which parts worked for you and which didn’t. Nerd out over style and theme and those tiny brilliant flourishes that nobody else in the world probably noticed. I’d say 73% of what I’ve learned about design comes from conversations just like those day after day, week after week.

6) Practice the craft.

It’s simple. You generally learn a lot more by doing rather than by observing. This isn’t to say everyone with good taste is a creator (we have plenty of editors and curators and critics, after all), but it never hurts to understand the craft deeply and personally, at the kind of level where you’re paring the artichoke or crafting the syntax or tweaking the pixels. At that level, you can acutely begin to understand what it means to fail, and what it might take to succeed.

If you do happen to make something and you’re hoping to get better at it, make sure you get real, honest-to-abe critical feedback. It may prickle, but it is always the right decision. (Seriously: always).

Good work does not spring from the mind fully-formed; it starts with good taste. And good taste is, like all things, a skill. (Remember: anyone can cook!) Some people are naturally more attuned to it. Others will take more time to absorb and learn.

Call me optimistic, but I find a kind of cozy reassurance in that.

This concludes the multi-part essay On Taste. Read Part 1 · Part 2

The Year of the Looking Glass

A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

Thanks to Mike Sego

    Julie Zhuo

    Written by

    Product design VP @ Facebook. Author of The Making of a Manager Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

    The Year of the Looking Glass

    A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

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