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13 Jul

On Good Taste

As all knowledge flows towards democratisation and content-ification, you will increasingly hear skilled recruiters and hiring managers focus on and talk about tacit know-how and intuitive aspects of skill that cannot be articulated or transferred easily.

These are attributes that cannot be taught, but can be learned. And they will increasingly differentiate an average hire from a rockstar, going forward.

One of these attributes is Taste.

I have hinted on what taste is when it comes to gleaning insights from customer interviews and user feedback in an . Today, I’d like to expand on taste and write about what it means to have “good taste.”

Taste is attention to detail.

It is a measure of how well a person is able to observe a domain or problem space and act within it. If you consistently pay attention to the details in a domain over a wide variety of contexts, all the small insights snowball into a muscle memory of intuition and shortcuts that are stored as aesthetic feelings, away from the articulated form of language and reason.

As John Saltivier says in his essay about building a set of stairs, “surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality.”

Taste is not just a style of doing, it is a measure of a person's intuitive understanding of a problem space. Having said that...

Taste is how you do things.

You can get water served the way it is in a cheap local restaurant — in dented and stained steel glasses, with water splashing all around while the waiter nonchalantly and rudely dumps the glasses on your table — or you can have it served to you gracefully like in a fine dining restaurant.

What's the difference?

The difference is in all the small and large details that the cheap restaurants didn't care to notice but the fine-dine place did.

Though taste may appear effortless, you can’t have taste by mistake. It requires intention, focus, and care. Taste is a commitment to paying attention and not just loving beautiful things, but deeply studying what makes them so.

Taste isn't beauty, it is what allows you to make beautiful things.

However, a consistent love and pursuit of beauty can lead one to cultivating taste. Beauty is an artefact, while taste is something that helps you create novel and beautiful artefacts by learning from the existing pool of beautiful things and phenomena that are rich in detail.

If your curiosity drives you towards certain forms of beauty, then a continued personal interest within this beautiful domain may lead you to begin developing taste within it. The effort you put to develop taste is driven not by willpower but by fascination. Your work is self-sustaining because it is constantly rewarding, even when it is difficult.

When you have taste for a given domain, you choose to do a thing and do it well. As such, taste can't be bought.

Taste is not the same as correctness, though.

"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

To do something correctly is not necessarily to do it tastefully. For most things, correctness is good enough, and there are many correct paths to take. You’ll be able to make something usable in many different ways.

But taste gets you to the thing that’s more than just correct. It reveals the creator's rich understanding of the problem space as well as the deep intentionality and care with which they approach their work.

Taste is coherence.

"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

When you understand a domain right down to its richest and most nuanced details, you can fine-tune all of those small details to cohere with your larger intention or message.

For sure you might have seen someone who has money but doesn't have taste.

How do you intuitively make that judgment?

You do that because humans can intuitively perceive coherence.

If a rich person does not have taste, they will buy all sorts of luxury brands, but none of them will fit together, none of them will cohere. It will all be a gaudy mishmash of expensive items that don't go along together and were probably only bought to signal wealth.

Taste is not signalling status with expensive things. It's how you conduct and carry yourself: showing your awareness of and fitment with your domain, the environment, and the people in that environment.

In this way, taste not only exhibits your standards of quality and attention to detail, but also the distinctive way the world bounces off of you. It reflects what you know about how the world works, how you choose to perceive it, and your unique set of values. And you can't manufacture coherence or authenticity, it has to be a natural outpouring of your own curiosities, interests, and way of being. It has to cohere with who you are.

That is why creating is so important. Creating forces taste upon its maker. As a creator, you must master self-expression and craft if you wish to make something truly compelling.

Here’s George Saunders on how he edits his writing:

“The way I revise is: I read my own text and imagine a little meter in my head, with “P” on one side (“Positive”) and “N” on the other (“Negative”)... This involves making thousands of what I’ve come to think of as “micro-decisions.” These are instantaneous, intuitive – I just prefer this to that… I just have a feeling and react to that feeling, in the form of a cut phrase, or an added word, or an urge to move this whole section, and so on. And then I do that over and over, for months, sometimes years, until that needle stays up in the “P” zone for the whole length of the text… With each choice, even the smallest ones, the story becomes more and more… well, it becomes more her, you could say. There’s more of her essential nature in it, more of what will distinguish her from all of those other writers out there. And gradually, the story starts to become something she couldn’t have foreseen when she started out – bigger, more complex, smarter, funnier, whatever.”

Taste is fundamentally linked to curiosity. And thus, it is domain-specific.

“There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion — and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It's rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.”

— Susan Sontag

That sought-after interior designer may not have taste for digital design. That 10x engineer may not care about how she dresses. An elite music composer may be at a total loss when it comes to identifying or writing good copy.

Taste is cultural.

But culture transcends taste and offers it permission to change.

Often, people think of those who have taste as elitists and snobs. And indeed, if your taste does not evolve with the culture and integrate details from it, you might be seen as a grumpy old snob or “boomer” who only likes stuff created before the 1980s.

If you're building for the internet, you will often find that the younger generation are likelier to have a taste that is more attuned with the culture due to their proximity to the internet while growing up and their abundant information intake that made curating tasteful content a priority for them.

They have put in the iterations to develop sufficient taste for building on the internet, along with all its memes, cultural tropes, gossip, slang, and ways of communicating.

So, when someone says, “Good taste is timeless,” it does not mean that only what is old and enduring is tasteful. Rather, what is meant is that all the attributes that make up taste — like care, attention to detail,  and coherence — are timeless.

You can create something timeless and yet culturally relevant in any culture or era. It's only the underlying attributes that lead to creating beautiful and tasteful things that matter.

Good taste is the ability to craft an idea, a vision, into the confines of a medium. It is invisible but deeply felt. It is something your users won't necessarily be able to put a finger on, but will nevertheless define their experience in significant ways.

It is what Christopher Alexander calls “the quality that cannot be named.”

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