Intentionally refine your taste

Taste is sometimes thought of only as an assessment of aesthetic qualities, but it does more than that. Taste is a subconscious assessment of value. Someone with refined taste can quickly, accurately, and consistently assess how qualities like durability, scarcity, status, functionality, sustainability, personal relevance, and efficiency of something match their personal values. That is, good taste frees your mind from the burden of having to consciously assess if something matches your values, whatever they may be.

This intuitive sense of value develops over time. Months and years of comparing lamps, typefaces, algorithms, manners, skyscrapers, prose, and management styles. For most people they develop as a side-effect of day-to-day activities. However, it is also possible to refine taste intentionally. To do that, you ask yourself questions that force you to confront inconsistencies in your taste and align it to your fundamental principles and values. Why do I prefer this lamp to that one? What if it were dark blue instead of light blue? Why do I think this piece of code is good?

The problm with developing taste merely as a side-effect of day-to-day activities is that the convergence to refined taste is slow or does not happen due to noise. If you usually see a quality you actually value – say chunking of information in an infographic – together with more prominent qualities you don’t – say a low signal to noise ratio – the good quality can be miscategorised as bad by your subconscious. This gives your taste poor precision and significantly slows down its refinement.

Instead, you should refine your taste intentionally: when comparing two things, try to articulate why you prefer one over the other. Reasons don’t have to be objective or provable, just explicit:

  • “I find blood-red more appealing than maroon because it is more easily recognisable (perhaps because evolution made us more alert to blood-red than maroon).”

  • “I dislike the ornamentation on this building because it is anachronistic and deceptive.”

  • “I like raw jeans because they last for a long time and only look worn when they actually are worn.”

  • “I like simple drop-shadows in software because they provide users with an intuitive sense of layering.”

The purpose is not to lay down absolute rules, but to pick out important qualities from noise in order to let your taste converge quickly on a set of underlying values. Being explicit about why you value qualities also prompt you to resolve any inconsistencies that may exist in your core values, which on its own is reason enough to develop your taste intentionally.

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