The matter of taste

essay8 minutes

What most of us lack in order to be artists, is not the inceptive emotion, nor yet merely technical skill in execution. It is capacity to work a vague idea and emotion over into terms of some definite medium.John Dewey, Art as Experience


Rather than understanding taste as the particular way a person does a thing, I will argue that taste is a measurement of how well a person is able to see and act within a problem space. That it is the ability to skip ahead over previously assimilated decisions to get to the heart of a matter. And that the process of doing this over and over within a domain turns the many small insights made into a muscle memory of shortcuts that are stored as aesthetic feelings, away from the cognitive expense of language and reason. Much more than just a style of doing, good taste is the intuitive understanding of a problem space.

Taste matters because it creates differentiation

A differentiated product is “better” in some way, but all too often putting your finger on exactly what is better is a frustrating exercise. Ben Thompson, Selling Feelings

Given our revised definition of taste as a unit of creative problem-solving ability, the question is, so what? Why does taste matter? As software destroys, transmutes and unbundles markets into recursively smaller niches, the user experience of these products becomes a major battleground for competitive differentiation. When all is said and done, a successful product will be decided by how well the product’s interfaces make people feel. A frustrating interface will be dismissed, and a satisfying interface will create a customer.

But what makes an interface successful? Beyond speed of performance, cohesive information sequences and anticipation of the human context and need, designing an experience that hopes to create feeling can only be done with feeling. The difference between good and bad becomes a matter of who can bring to bear greater focus and knowhow within the problem space. It becomes a matter of who can build with better taste.

Taste is a measure of cultivated attention

Because information grows through human use, problem spaces have infinite depth. After deliberate practice within a problem space over long periods of time, what we have learned is assimilated into aesthetic intuitions. If intuitions are made of knowhow1 that don’t need to be encoded into language, then taste is made of libraries of intuition.

Intuition is a suspension of logic due to impatience. Rita Mae Brown

These libraries help us shortcut logic and leap over the decisions we’ve already converted into taste so we can immerse ourselves deeper into the problem and see evermore clearly what matters. In this way, taste is a process of compression and acceleration through cultivated attention.

Taste creates the competitive advantage of perspective

I think this place is beautiful, if you look at it right. David Lynch

Taste is stored at a pre-linguistic, pre-logical stage, and is understood as an emotional feeling before we can talk about it. Beauty is also understood in this manner. In fact, the two are often confused because good taste is more often than not beautiful. But beauty is not taste. Beauty signals rich information that is worth paying attention to. Whereas taste informs the creation of new information based on a history of previous attention.

Taste, like beauty, is misunderstood. And I think that’s because it’s difficult to rationalise. Even though we aren’t rational at all, we like to think we are. As a result, anything that’s hard to describe in words, we don’t trust. And taste is difficult to describe in words. We only get things like taste and beauty when we’re receptive to our intuition and curiosity.

PayPal was a very friendly name. It was the friend that helps you pay. Napster was a bad name. It was the music sharing site. You nap some music, you nap a kid. That sounds like a bad thing to be doing. Peter Thiel

The simplicity of understanding in Thiel’s quote hides a receptivity to aesthetics, which we’re used to rationalising away. We make them all the more powerful when we fail to notice them as rich information in plain sight. As we increasingly live our lives reacting to an attention deficit, we tend to fill the empty moments where previously feeling emerged. But that does not prevent most of our decisions being post-rationalised based on barely conscious gut feelings. We are parsing aesthetics and heeding them as emotions as automatically as we digest food. We may not be able to describe in words what we want, yet we know it when we see it. And I venture, in broader terms, we know it when we feel it.

When you have a cultivated your attention for a problem space so deeply that you’ve turned your knowhow into feeling—what German speakers call fingerspitzengefühl, translated literally as finger-tip-feeling—then you have created for yourself the competitive advantage of perspective. As Alan Kay says, “A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” Thus, we can say that taste is a measure of imagination growth.

You can’t buy taste

If we are drawn to beauty through curiosity,2 then a continued personal interest within this beautiful domain may lead us to begin developing taste within it. As we move from interested to fascinated, our learning within the space over time allows us to form a deliberate practice for working with it. The level of effort is driven not by willpower but fascination. The work is self-sustaining because it is constantly rewarding, even when it is difficult. We are cultivating taste for a given domain when we choose to do a thing and do it well. As such, taste can’t be bought.

There are many alter-egos for the process of acquiring taste that I’ve just described. It has elements of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey myth. Steven Pressfield called the hard parts of this process The Resistance. The Greeks called it Daemon, which translates as a person’s “inspiring force” or genius. And the Latin meaning for genius was “innate talent”, or “the guardian spirit which watches over each person from birth”.

In Lewis Hyde’s “The Gift” he tells the story of the original Latin concept of genius, which our modern meaning is now diametrically oppossed to.3 Instead of being a post-hoc title to canonise great work—as we currently understand it—genius was understood as an innate talent given to every person at birth. The gotcha was that we couldn’t fully, potently receive the fullness of our gift until we could meet it as an equal by labouring with it in gratitude. This practice can only be done without obligation, at its own pace, and when we finish, we will barely remember producing the results. In other words, refined taste—the fulfilment of one’s genius—can only be ground out in what Csíkszentmihályi called “flow” states over a long time. It’s expensive stuff.

Taste, like ethics, can’t be simply transferred between people as information. It is too complex. Instead, it has to be cultivated within each person according to the whims of that person. And each person’s knowhow is locked up within them unless that person manages to convince other people of the worth of their perspectives.

Sharing taste across the firmbyte

Our society’s ability to accumulate information requires flows of energy, the physical storage of information in solid objects, and of course our collective ability to compute. César Hidalgo, Why Information Grows

The greatest bottleneck to the economy is not helping first home buyers to get on the property ladder but transferring the encoded knowhow trapped within an individual to a network of people that can, as César Hidalgo says, “crystallise imagination” into the solid matter of a scalable product.

Our collective ability to compute suffers from the high cost of transacting information between our selves. Each of us live completely individual experiences, which means we all know things nobody else knows. It is impossible to encode your experience for another so they feel it as you did, yet with mutually understood interests and stories, and an eagerness to socially engage, communication is made. So while taste can’t be bought, some form of it can be shared.

Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius. Brian Eno

Scenius is a compound of the words “genius” and “scene”, and was coined by Brian Eno to represent the creative intelligence of a community. Given Lewis Hyde’s revised concept of genius as a cultivated gift, then scenius is the cultivated attunement of each team member’s genius within a focus of mutual interest.

How an individual’s taste is shared depends on the prior embedded knowhow within each person and how each person relates to everyone else on the team. Are you able to express and connect your ideas? Are others receptive to theses ideas? Does this generate interesting new conversations? Can you listen in return? Do you feel energised?

Sure, there’s work to be done. But unless the work is orchestrated as a combined effort with an awareness of who’s playing what note, and why, the product produced is far less likely to make people feel good enough about using it. And if you can’t get people to feel good enough about using it in the first place, they’re not going to use it at all.

Good taste makes good things

Economic development is not the ability to buy but the ability to make. César Hidalgo, Why Information Grows

Just as you cannot not communicate, you cannot not have taste. Rather than being a throwaway complement, taste describes a person or a team’s intuited ability to comprehend and create within a problem space. Taste is cultivated by a natural curiousity for this space, which allows one to refine and speed up their attention processes, squishing knowhow into smaller and smaller bundles in order to discover more and more interesting things within it. Good taste is the embodied ability to work a vague idea and emotion over into terms of the medium. It is the invisible dark matter that makes one product a superior user experience over another. Indeed, you will know you’re successful people call your product “beautiful”. Good taste makes good things.


2. Taste is knowhow, not knowledge. Knowhow encompasses knowledge and puts it to use. As César Hidalgo says: Knowledge and knowhow are not the same thing. Knowledge involves relationships or linkages between entities. These relationships are often used to predict the outcomes of events without having to act them out. Knowhow is different from knowledge because it involves the capacity to perform actions, which is tacit.


3. The Latin root meaning of "genius" has fallen from modern usage but still lives on within some domains. For example, in landscape gardening, genius loci refers to a location's distinctive atmosphere, or spirit of place.