Virginia Postrel, the author of The Future and Its
Enemies, writes the Economic Scene column for The New York
Times business section every fourth Thursday. Her new book,
The Substance of Style will be published by HarperCollins
in June 2003. In the book, she explores the economic, cultural,
social, personal, and political implications of the growing
importance of aesthetics in business and society.Your background seems to be primarily in business and
politics, what first got you interested in
I was working on this book called The Future and Its
Enemies. In the process of researching that book I started
thinking about design and came into contact with people who were
working creatively. That was part of it; another part of it I just
started to notice that the aesthetic dimension of life—whether we
are talking about people, places or things—is becoming increasingly
important. And I became interested aesthetics as a source of
value—both economic value and personal or cultural value—and as a
source of conflict, which is where it leads into politics.Can you define this aesthetic value?
First, let's talk about what are the sources of value in a designed
object. There are basically three of them: one is function, one is
meaning, and one is pleasure. Function is important and is
increasingly assumed, but it is not the differentiator. It used to
be that both in culture and in business the emphasis was on
function. Designers were brought in at the end of the process
essentially as stylists. Now, while the function still has to be
there, it is an expectation rather than a differentiator. The added
value will come from meaning and pleasure, what I call aesthetics,
the look and feel. The world is also becoming more and more
pluralistic. There is more variety in the ways people express
themselves both as individuals, as groups, and as corporations.
There is not a social consensus that there is just one best way.
The question for business is how much diversity can you profitably
produce and distribute, and the answer increasingly is “more”.
Can you give an example of a business that is using aesthetics to
gain competitive advantage?
The touchstone example is Starbucks. Starbucks is to the age of
aesthetics what McDonalds was to the age of convenience or Ford was
to the age of mass production. It is the one that everyone tries to
copy or criticize. The primary function of Starbucks is to make
coffee, and they do make very good coffee. The reason you pay so
much for your coffee as compared to making it at home or going
somewhere else, however, is that they create a whole aesthetic
This environment includes the physical space, the music, the way it
smells, etcetera. They have a lot of designers on staff working to
create and recreate this environment. Also, although every store is
easily identifiable as a Starbucks, there is enough differentiation
that they can put seven within walking distance of each other and
people will have a personal favorite. The differentiation in these
cases is often very individual and subjective. A particular color
might remind you of something you hate from your childhood. You may
have had a good experience in one of the stores. It could be a
friendly staff person. This emphasis on aesthetic differentiation
is revolutionizing the restaurant, hotel, and retail industries.
They are trying to create an aesthetically appealing environment
and to be places people want to hang out.
How do we assess, measure and predict aesthetic
It's a difficult question. Although these intangibles have genuine
value they are often disregarded because they are so subjective.
There are universal pleasures and responses, but a lot of responses
are based on personal experience. Quantifying aesthetic value is
very difficult. It's not like there is one thing you can measure.
Furthermore, aesthetic elements are bundled into goods and
services. To get a sense of the trend I looked at a lot of small
indicators: everything from what people are studying in school to
how much hair dye they are buying. There have also been some
attempts to isolate and quantify variety, which is very difficult.
All we know for sure is that it seems to be increasing. The other
problem in terms of economic quantification is that a lot of this
is occurring in very aesthetically competitive markets. Companies
invest in aesthetics just to survive. The benefits go to the
consumer but don't result in a higher price point. But there are a
few examples where aesthetics did translate directly into profit.
For instance, Motorola introduced a squirt-gun green pager in the
early 90's and found they were able to get $15 more just because it
was different. These days, however, you have to have different
color pagers and you can't charge more for them.
Are we reaching a point of aesthetic saturation? Will aesthetics
continue to be an effective differentiator?
I think that design is only going to be more important. Good design
will be required to even play the game. There has been a lot of
innovation in the past decade, but there is still a lot of room for
Are there any limits to aesthetic diversity?
There may be technological or economic reasons to keep things
standardized but the pressures are towards personalization. People
want more choice. There are exceptions of course: people don't seem
to want major appliances in crazy colors. They tend to stick to the
tried and true. Whether that is because nothing has caught people's
imagination or people are risk averse. I don't know. Although I may
love the color harvest gold, I don't necessarily want a
harvest-gold washing machine. I choose beige instead. I might not
love it when it's new but I won't hate it when it's old. But for
something that is replaced frequently, why not go for the gold?
Also keep in mind that a way humans create identity is to echo each
other. People dress in much more diverse ways than they did a half
a century ago, but still there are identifiable styles. People tend
to dress like their friends. There are lots of subtle signals.
Human beings have a tendency to make patterns. Even with increased
diversity there are patterns within the diversity. For example,
technologically it has become much easier to produce and distribute
typefaces, but type has not become completely chaotic. On the
contrary, typefaces have become more subtle and convey highly
So, as diversity increases there are more opportunities to create
Yes, and people become more sophisticated in interpreting. If you
are a native of the rainforest you learn to distinguish many sorts
of leaves. We learn to distinguish many different typefaces.
What do you see as the largest obstacle in communicating the value
There has been a tendency among social critics to look at appealing
surfaces and say one of two negative things. One is that there is
no value there. If you pay more for a green pager you are being a
dupe. Interestingly, you get that criticism from both quasi-Marxist
critics of market capitalism and also from engineer types who are
great believers in the market. The other criticism is that
aesthetic value is all about status. I would not claim that status
is not a motivator, but status is surely not the only source of
pleasure. It used to be that a lot of aesthetic goods were much
more expensive and were class markers. But now a lot of aesthetic
goods are not as expensive relative to income. The differentiation
is not hierarchical, high-class or low class, but rather
horizontal. Different groups with the same social status tend to
choose different things. I've also noticed that when you actually
ask someone why, for instance, they bought a fancy stove the answer
you get is not that they want to impress the neighbors or even that
it is more functional. Instead, they will reference its aesthetic
value. They will say that the stove is like a work of art. It's a
What advice would you give for communicating the value of
aesthetics to business?
The first mistake people make is to forget functionality. The
second is to neglect meaning. Meaning is based largely on what the
audience already knows, to create meaning one has to work within
this existing structure. For example, some designs may be very
meaningful to other designers but may not communicate to CEOs.
Designing for other designers is important in the same way that
exploratory research is important, but you have to be very aware of
It's interesting because people in creative fields tend to talk
about business as if it were one giant monolith. They fail to
distinguish the subtleties of the client's environment. This is
ironic because an appreciation of the environmental subtleties is,
in many cases, exactly what they are trying to get across. The
details matter tremendously.
Could you reflect briefly on the theme of “beyond
When branding works it is not top down, it only works because
somehow people at the bottom, both customers and employees, accept
and enrich the experience. An identity for an organization has to
arise from an experience. It's not about making a nifty logo. If
you have a good logo and people have a good experience, only then
does it start to have meaning.
...First published in Gain 2.0:
AIGA Journal of Design for the Network Economy.
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