Intentionally refine your taste

Taste is sometimes thought of only as an assessment of aesthetic qualities, but it does much more than that. Taste is a subconcious 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, taste frees your mind from the burden of having to consciously assess if something’s qualities match your preferences, whatever they may be.

This intuitive sense of value develops over time. Months and years of comparing lamps, typefaces, algorithms, manners, skyscrapers, prose, or dresses. For most people these intuitions develop as a side-effect of consumption. 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?

The problm with developing taste merely as a side-effect of consumption is that the convergence to refined taste is slow, if it converges at all. The problem is 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 subconcious. This gives your taste poor precision and significantly slows down its refinement.

Instead, you should refine 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 ornament 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 were.

I like simple drop-shadows in software because they provide users with an intuitive sense of layering without having to be taught conventions.

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 certain qualities also prompt you to iron out any possible inconsistencies in your core values, which in itself is reason to develop your taste intentionally.