The role of taste in design

Photo by All Glass Photo.

Photo by All Glass Photo.

While other teenagers chased the opposite sex and drank their parents’ cider, I played chess. Bobby Fischer was my Holden Caulfield; a gifted but flawed antihero. At university, my chess career dropped off as I caught up on the excitement I’d missed, but the mark was made, and I still play from time to time. I’ve even played a few Grandmasters, with little success.

Most people think that Grandmasters are stronger players because they “see further ahead”. It’s true that they examine branches of play more deeply than the average player, but the difference is slight. A couple of moves perhaps, but not enough to explain the gulf in skill.

Instead, the main difference is that strong players instinctively select good moves to analyse in the first place. Somehow, masters screen out bad moves without the need for deep analysis. Ask these players to explain this process and they struggle – all they can say is that they intuitively knew certain moves were more promising than others. It’s as if skilled players have developed “taste” for chess moves.

Psychologist Adriaan de Groot’s studies show that the process of playing chess is more akin to the design process than to mathematical reasoning. Both chess and design revolve around visual memory and spatial reasoning. Both involve a phase of orientation, exploration, investigation and validation. And both have enormous branching factors. The permutations of design are limited only by constraints and imagination, while the number of chess games of just three moves each numbers over nine million. De Groot explains that the discernment showed by skilled players is closely related to pattern matching. Grandmasters are thought to have learned up to 100,000 chess patterns and moves, which helps them to develop a feel for the right move in the circumstances.

So what role does taste play in the design process? My theory is that, as in chess, “taste” is simply the ability to draw on patterns and experience to help us choose better candidates for analysis. As such, good taste improves efficiency. An experienced designer doesn’t waste time on clearly ineffective solutions: typographically poor designs, bad colour choice, or unusable interaction metaphors. It follows that taste is learned, not innate. Experience, exposure, and practice give us patterns that suggest which solutions might fit which problems.

There are, however, more cautionary interpretations. Some critics and philosophers contend that taste is merely an exercise in reinforcing social hierarchy: the upper class has taste, the middle class aspires to it, and the lower class lacks it. According to this theory, “taste” is a value judgment about what is beautiful, desirable and proper in the world.

This leads us to the troubling thought that perhaps professional designers perpetuate their existence by claiming that only they possess taste. To avoid this elitist trap, we must expose ourselves to variety in design. This means embracing the low brow with the aristocratic, the kitsch with the refined, the masculine and the feminine. We should let go of the notion that only a designer can produce a tasteful solution, and revel in the ingenuity of the hack and the quick fix.

Whatever the definition, taste alone isn’t sufficient for good design. Give a Grandmaster two hours to play a game and they’ll play substantially better than if you give them five minutes. Promising solutions must still be examined thoroughly. This analysis – visual prediction, updating our approaches as we find flaws or learn more about the features of the problem – is the heart of the design process. Anyone who claims that taste alone justifies their design is misguided if not arrogant.

Postscript

Several years after graduation, I grew nostalgic for the tick of the chess clock and joined a local league. A strange thing had happened. My grade, the quantification of chess skill, had leapt from a mediocre 79 to a respectable 125 (1700 USCF, for American readers). Yet I’d not practised, kept up to date with opening theory, or played more than a handful of one-sided casual games. How, in ten years of lapsed play, had I become a better chess player?

Now I know. I became a designer.

Further reading