Taste

I was talking recently to a friend who teaches at MIT. His field is hot now and every year he is inundated by applications from would-be graduate students. "A lot of them seem smart," he said. "What I can't tell is whether they have any kind of taste."

Taste. You don't hear that word much now. And yet we still need the underlying concept, whatever we call it. What my friend meant was that he wanted students who were not just good technicians, but who could use their technical knowledge to design beautiful things.

Mathematicians call good work "beautiful," and so, either now or in the past, have scientists, engineers, musicians, architects, designers, writers, and painters. Is it just a coincidence that they used the same word, or is there some overlap in what they meant? If there is an overlap, can we use one field's discoveries about beauty to help us in another?

For those of us who design things, these are not just theoretical questions. If there is such a thing as beauty, we need to be able to recognize it. We need good taste to make good things. Instead of treating beauty as an airy abstraction, to be either blathered about or avoided depending on how one feels about airy abstractions, let's try considering it as a practical question: how do you make good stuff?

To me, the sign of people I really want to work with is that they have good taste. Good taste is about really seeing the big patterns and kind of instinctively knowing what's the right way to do things.

The only problem with Microsoft, is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste. What that means is - I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way - in a sense that, they don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their product.

Intolerance for ugliness is not in itself enough. You have to understand a field well before you develop a good nose for what needs fixing. You have to do your homework. But as you become expert in a field, you'll start to hear little voices saying, What a hack! There must be a better way. Don't ignore those voices. Cultivate them. The recipe for great work is: very exacting taste, plus the ability to gratify it.

Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me … is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it and we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like, there’s a gap. That for the first couple of years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.

A lot of people never get past that phase, and a lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have and the thing what to do is, everybody goes through that.

And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, you’ve got to know it’s totally normal and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.

In my case, I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It is going to take you a while. It’s normal to take a while, and you just have to fight your way through that.

You cannot get a job as an art director unless you have had some training in film, layout, photography and typography. It helps to be endowed with good taste.