Pricing Beauty: Reflections on Aesthetics and Value, an Interview with Virginia Postrel

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 aesthetics?

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 environment.

“Function is an expectation rather than a differentiator. The added value will come from meaning and pleasure, what I call aesthetics—the look and feel.”

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 value?

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 improvement.

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 nuanced meanings.

So, as diversity increases there are more opportunities to create meaning?

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 of aesthetics?

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 pleasure.

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 the context.

“The first mistake designers make is to forget functionality. The second is to neglect meaning.”

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 branding?”

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.