On 'On Liking'

Patrick Burgoyne, editor of Creative Review, gave an interesting lecture at LCC on Wednesday night. Titled 'On Liking', the lecture used as its starting point the 'Like' button on Facebook. This supposed democracy of liking allows people to easily express their liking of a whole manner of random things, without having to think about why they like that thing and sometimes, what it is they are actually liking. The Like button has been parodied in many ways, notably in Nation's rubber stamp, but, as advertisers increasingly use Facebook for market research, these impulse likings are seen to represent contemporary mass taste(s).

Burgoyne went on to talk about liking in general, why we like things and how liking is related to taste. Interestingly, he talked about a theory that we tend to like things that we think will protect us (or at least won't harm us) so we usually like things that we are familiar with. He spoke about the ways in which we learn to like things and the degrees in which familiar things (such as logos) can be tweaked to make them exciting again but without becoming so unfamiliar that they appear threatening.

Familiarity breeds boredom: he explained the theory of the upturned U which describes how we learn to like things through repetition but then become bored by them: we might hear a new song and not like it, we might hear it again and like it more, hear it again and like it a bit more and so on - this liking is represented by the upstroke of the upturned U. We tend to reach a plateau where we like something a lot - represented by the top curve of the U, but then, when we've listened to something too much i.e. it becomes too familiar, we don't like that thing anymore, represented by the downstroke. This is a simple but useful idea and the pop song analogy is a good one: pop music has become adept at selling a band's back catalogue to people who already own it and may have become bored with it, by tweaking it - with remasters, remixes and expanded editions etc - to make the familiar unfamiliar.

Graphic design is fond of tweaking things, Burgoyne used the example of The Guardian's redesign by David Hillman in 1988 to illustrate how new and unfamiliar things can threaten and alienate - the design was initially disliked but, by the time of Mark Porter's redesign in 2005 it was seen as a classic and the new design received negative criticism. Five years on and Porter's design is loved by readers and seen as groundbreaking by the design community.

I'm particularly interested in why people like certain things: my own research has looked at why I'm drawn to certain kinds of design, essentially, why I like them better than others. I think visual communication connects with us, even on a brief viewing, at a visceral level, in a manner that is so complex it is difficult for us to decode so we can't always articulate what that connection is. Unlike reading a book, watching a film or listening to music which demand time, we are able to make instant decisions about liking or disliking something that is visual. We can take a dislike to a book cover but in order to know if we like or dislike the content of that book we have to invest time to read it. Of course, our judgment of the content might be tempered by the designer's choice of typeface or the too-long line length and, we may hate the cover so much that we don't even get beyond it.

Liking things is part of the human condition. Most people have strong opinions about what they like; designers and visual artists like to look at nice things: they generally want to create things that they want to look at. A person with a strong understanding and appreciation of the visual is often said to have a 'good eye' or good taste. Taste is somewhat complex: there's not just one kind of taste - many different tastes exist alongside each other. The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that each judgement of taste presumes the existence of a consensus of taste, a community that enables judgements of taste. Good taste can only exist if a group agrees - for whatever reason(s) - that something constitutes good taste.

Taste is hugely problematic largely because of its relationship to class: tastemakers, on the whole, tend to be middle class, white and wealthy. Design that is considered good taste is often more expensive than design that is not considered good taste. As Pierre Bourdieu points out, social groups use “symbolic goods, especially those regarded as the attributes of excellence, […as] the ideal weapon in strategies of distinction.” [1] Bourdieu argues that the development of these aesthetic dispositions are largely determined by social origin rather than through accumulated capital and experience over time.

The notion of good taste is often linked to the idea of good design. How do we define 'good design' or a 'good designer', are we just back to liking things or is there something in good design that is beyond mere taste? In the present digital age, information is spread phenomenally quickly: trends and fashions are circulated at speeds we could not imagine even ten years ago. With such a plethora of information, of so many styles in circulation, it is getting harder to make informed judgments of what is good, of what we like. The rules have been re-written: the democratisation of information, as represented by Facebook, and by blogs such as this, has given us access to more and more information but, with so much material to process, is the best opinion we can hold a simple 'Like'?

[1] Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge




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