6. About Taste
There are many who view Design as no more than aesthetics, applied artists in a sense. There are others who describe Design as Design Thinking and a process of solving problem with nothing to do with aesthetics. There is another way to view Design, one that I would argue is more correct, that acknowledges that a Designer must be concerned with both aesthetic and functionality. To understand this view, we must first start by reframing aesthetics as ‘taste’ and referencing the way Pierre Bourdieu describes ‘taste’.
In the book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu discusses how one’s taste in aesthetic determines their social class standing. He argues that there is another dimension of power outside of money that comes from a class structure determined by taste. For example, let us think about watches at different price points. Expensive watches are not just watches with higher quality material and better craft, but they are designed with a particular aesthetic style made possible by its cost of labor and material. Expensive watches are designed to show the exclusivity of the wearer to a social group. Taste is not simply a matter of visual preferences, but reveal much more complex social relations they may have to their dominant culture.
To operationalize taste it helps to break down taste into a matrix of in which one axis represents the amount of financial capital as well as another axis for cultural capital. This matrix helps in the process of identifying patterns within a pattern’s taste. For example, does their preference lean towards objects of low social capital and low financial capital like pop music or do they prefer objects of low social capital but high financial capital such as attending American Football games. While financial capital is easier to understand (how expensive is something), it is also important to be able to identify objects of high and low social capital. Social Capital is defined as knowledge or taste that can be used for power. For example, knowledge and taste for Opera is high in both financial and social capital because Operas are expensive to attend and having a taste for Opera allows you to be included into higher social classes.
By mapping and translating a person’s taste across different aspects of their lifestyle a Designer becomes well informed about how to Design but functionality and aesthetic. By using taste to understand a person’s lifestyle, a Designer can then strategically think of interactions and functionality that will fit their lifestyle. No human is purely utilitarian, and by having a deep grasp of a person’s taste and preference a Designer will be able to Design with the proper aesthetic for their expression of self.
Lastly, it is worth noting that taste has to be understood politically because of the power dynamics behind taste and the way they include and exclude people. A Designer will always be making political decisions when it comes to taste, and it is best not to shy away from it but instead maintain a critical eye on the politics behind our decisions and deeply consider the potential consequences of our designs as subtle as they are.