People think taste is subjective, until they start to design things. Paul Graham argues that most people keep their thoughts on taste as unexamined impulses, starting from childhood. When they like something, they have no idea why—it could be because their friends like it, because it’s fashionable, or because a movie star uses it. Once they become designers, they start to realize the relationship between taste and good design. We all need to examine taste more objectively.
To understand quality we need to look critically at: materials that are fit for purpose, ergonomy that considers audience needs, effective use of affordances, usability, accessibility, harmonic color choices, aesthetic choices that elicit emotion, intentional visual hierarchy—amongst others. Taste is in the observer, quality is in the object. The concept of taste becomes more productive when framed objectively around quality, and in ways that are measurable or at least comparable.
It is the ability to look at a wide scope of possibilities and choose with focus. In a world where Netflix launches hundreds of shows with questionable quality every month, film studio A24 has built their own brand based on supporting fewer movies that have a higher chance of (commercial and artistic) success. Taste, as a skill, is not exclusive to creators.
As any other skill, the best way to develop is practice: exploring new paths, taking risks, and making mistakes. Over time, we start to build a repertoire of things that work better than others—and most importantly, why.
I might prefer modernist architecture, you might prefer gothic architecture. Personal preference is not that relevant in design—you’re designing for a brand that has a specific aesthetic, and for an audience whose preferences might be different than yours.
Sometimes you’ll need to design products that don’t match your personal aesthetics preferences.
Visual trends will always change (not only over time but across cultures). Think about how software design has evolved from skeumorphic to flat, or even shorter-lived trends such as glassmorphism or bento grids. Someone with a developed taste will know to appreciate good quality beyond the latest trends.
In an AI-powered world, it’s never been easier to produce reasonably well-executed outputs in a short amount of time. When execution becomes commodity, developing taste to know what to create becomes a crucial skill.
Watch out for people using “good taste” and “bad taste” as exclusionary terms. When someone says “you need to have good taste” but doesn’t break down what taste means in an objective manner, they might be using it as an excuse to exclude people. Historically, taste has been an elitist concept and intentionally kept blurry and subjective to prevent people from accessing certain places, groups, or opportunities.
As designers, we have to start objectively defining quality: what does quality mean for our company, our team, and our own careers as designers? How can we make design education less focused on process, and more focused on quality? When we eliminate blurry words and subjectivity from the conversation, our individual taste skills can finally be used to reach that shared quality goal.