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Simple points made well
on September 29, 2003
Never before have humans mastered production and distribution so well that function and value become givens, making aesthetics the ground of marginal competition. Design, therefore, has real and substantive, if hard to measure, economic value. These are the two points that Virginia Postrel makes in The Substance of Style. It takes her 191 pages to do so, however, and this distresses some who feel that these obvious points could have been made in two sentences.
I came to this book with the same trepidation because I didn't particularly care for Postrel's last book, The Future and its Enemies. But, I ended up a convert. Sure, Postrel's thesis here is a simple one, but this only underscores its elegance. That we all demand ambiance with our coffee and a flourish with our door knobs is something many folks take for granted. But the thing is, it's an unprecedented change in the history of human consumption and I don't know of anyone who has catalogued it like Postrel has. That profitability and business survival increasingly depend on the intangible "feel" of a product or service--and not on its traditional utility--will still come as a surprise to many old-school thinkers.
What Postrel does in this book is engagingly prove her two points beyond a doubt. Sure, they're simple points, but the book is short and packed with interesting anecdotes. I recommend this book to anyone interested in design, but especially to folks who think there's no value in looks or those who might be tempted to fault our modern "consumerist" culture as wasteful.