Ask DN: What exactly is (good) taste?

over 8 years ago from

I've been thinking about this for a while, mainly because I decided to rewatch THE GAP by Ira Glass. What exactly constitutes good taste? I'm trying to self teach design starting this year and I was just really thinking about it.

Is there a way to more objectively define (good) taste? Or if not, what kind of a subjective definition would you give.


  • Jonathan CutrellJonathan Cutrell, over 8 years ago

    I believe taste is an extension of opinion.

    Opinion, on its own, is relatively useless. What makes good taste is necessarily the "meta-opinion" - the opinion about the opinion.

    In other words, we tend to group our opinions together, and the ones that are the most appealing, or thoughtful, or otherwise determined to have value to a group of people, might could be considered "good" taste.

    So, taste is a value-oriented thing, and is judged/determined by a community, in a context.

    11 points
    • Ammar MianAmmar Mian, over 8 years ago

      That's super interesting... if "good" taste is a function of how well something fits in with a meta-opinion, maybe it's synonymous with the idea of authenticity. What is authentic is often perceived as tasteful. Hard to really gauge authenticity other than some intuitive audit of how well something is aligned with this "grouping of opinions" that belong to a particular community

      3 points
  • Nathan HueningNathan Huening, over 8 years ago

    Paul Graham said it best:


    Best working definition you'll find.

    6 points
  • Corin EdwardsCorin Edwards, over 8 years ago

    Good taste is understanding why something is beautiful.

    4 points
    • Bevan StephensBevan Stephens, over 8 years ago

      I disagree. For example a designer with good taste but low ability may be able to choose a great typeface but be unable to explain why it is great.

      0 points
  • Ammar MianAmmar Mian, over 8 years ago

    I love this question. In my opinion, taste is being able to put everything in its right place (taking into account context, history, the people interacting with it, the expectations people have in interacting with it, the aspirations people have in interacting with it).

    Check out "Notes on the Synthesis of Form" -- great design read that talks about some of this stuff :)

    4 points
  • Charlie McCullochCharlie McCulloch, over 8 years ago

    I think it's an unhelpful term created by social conditioning. The concept implies that for one person's taste to be "good", another's must be "bad", which cannot be objectively defined. It only exists to rationalise one group or individual's biases vs another's.

    Far better to focus on setting realistic and well-informed objectives, measuring against these, and being ruthless in the pursuit of quality execution (which can be objectively defined).

    As a very broad example, using some clean purist Helvetica grid poster to advertise a death metal festival would not be very effective, even though the swiss style is seen by some designers as the pinnacle of good taste.

    2 points
  • Pasquale D'SilvaPasquale D'Silva, over 8 years ago

    I think it's an informed opinion made after sampling a wide, wholesome gamut.

    2 points
  • barry saundersbarry saunders, over 8 years ago

    read Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu for a good theoretical grounding. Basically taste is a subjective idea created through acts of social positioning.

    There's no 'objective' taste, as it's influenced by class, culture and era. Your taste is always subjective, but you can develop your taste through research, through art, through creative expression, and through reflection.

    2 points
  • Billy CarlsonBilly Carlson, over 8 years ago (edited over 8 years ago )

    I think your first mistake is to try to teach yourself design. I have been designing for over a decade and still learn from my peers and mentors. Its important to not try to learn something as vast as design, by yourself. Make sure you ask lots of different designers lots of questions. Think of yourself as a curious three year old. Blurt out "but why?" 50 times a day on blogs or the girl working at the coffee shop. You will learn how you define good taste if you continue to do this.

    2 points
  • Bevan StephensBevan Stephens, over 8 years ago

    Aesthetically speaking, most of what makes great design isn't really a subjective thing, there are many universal principles such as simplicity, symmetry, resembling natural objects, flexibility, etc... that most people would agree on.

    However I believe that taste is just intuition – the ability to recognise good design even if you don't have the ability to execute it yourself.

    1 point
  • Geo KaltGeo Kalt, over 8 years ago

    Philosophy thinking, taste and aesthetics is the same thing. They both need a lot of work...

    1 point
  • Savelle McThiasSavelle McThias, over 8 years ago

    I think what Ira Glass meant, was "standards". Designers have perceived standards or the attitude necessary to eventually have standards.

    Personally, I think it's an old way of perceiving design. But, that's not wise to tell your clients ;)

    1 point
  • Andy LeverenzAndy Leverenz, over 8 years ago

    Italian food! But really...I'm always asking this question myself. What defines good design and why is "it" considered good

    1 point
  • Sean LesterSean Lester, over 8 years ago

    It's the thing I have B)

    1 point
  • Drew AlbinsonDrew Albinson, over 8 years ago (edited over 8 years ago )

    "I know it when I see it"

    I think "good" is pretty relative here. Perhaps using the term "experienced" or "varied" would make more sense. But I think we're all talking about the same thing so I won't get stuck in rhetoric.

    To build "good" taste (or experienced taste, etc.), I believe one must combine exposure, foundation training, and critical thinking. I'll outline these quickly:

    1. Exposure: In order to tell the "good" from the "bad" we need to know what "good" and "bad" look like in many different situations. We need to be able to find what's missing, or what works when we see the thing. We need to be able to imagine what could improve or reduce the quality of the thing. The way to do this is to see and experience many things and build up a base of knowledge which you can then draw from when presented with things. You could call this your framework, your perspective, or your lens.

    2. Foundation Training: This is important because it allows you to deconstruct and build upon that gut feeling of this is "good" or this is "bad" (which is how your taste speaks to you). When considering design, there are a lot of different ways this could take shape. One could study the elements and principles of design to get a baseline level of knowledge on how visuals work and interact, but that wouldn't be enough, would it? This is where specialization comes in. If you are the world's most renowned seafood critic that doesn't necessarily mean you can tell the best bottle of wine from a box of Franzia. The same applies here: if you are strong at evaluating editorial design, that means you're building on your understanding of grids, layouts, typography and more. If you're strong at evaluating diagrams you are drawing on a different breadth of knowledge (exposure becomes key here as well)

    3. Critical Thinking: This is really more about learning in general. Up until this point you have digested thousands if not millions of designed images. That doesn't mean you're an expert, so has my mom and she couldn't design her way out of a shoe box (sorry mom). Being conscious of what you're looking at and critically examining what is going on is the only way to begin learning how design ticks. Ask questions (to yourself if not the designer), engage with others on ideas, compare the things. This is the actual learning bit. It's never ending too, so don't get comfortable. There is no end when developing a palette, because we aren't dealing with constants here. New work and contexts are being developed every second of every day.

    0 points
  • Chris ThomasChris Thomas, over 8 years ago

    Grayson Perry did a great trio of documentaries on taste: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/in-the-best-possible-taste-grayson-perry

    They're very UK-centric, but maybe worth a watch to understand how taste differs among different classes.

    0 points
  • Mat RansonMat Ranson, over 8 years ago

    There's nothing magical about good taste. It's just a consensus of opinion, often, but not always, formed by group dynamics rather than personal choice. This has made taste a huge aspect of network culture in its basic forms of sharing and 'liking', which then brought about 'curating' and of course, beneath it all, buying.

    A cursory flick through the history of Aesthetics will show you that this 'debate' over taste has been raging for thousands of years.

    0 points
  • Josh ClementJosh Clement, over 8 years ago

    If you have to ask...

    0 points
  • Jeff EscalanteJeff Escalante, over 8 years ago (edited over 8 years ago )

    Here's my very objective definition of good taste. Many people will disagree with this and try to give you more subjective ones. If you are one of those people, read the last paragraph before raging please. And as is the case with anything, this is simply my opinion, you can take what you believe in.

    Your taste can be defined directly by the percentage of people in a certain group that see something you art directed (made, curated, etc) and like it. As with any statistical measure, standard statistical constraints must be taken into account. For example, if you show 2 people something you made in photoshop and they both like it, this is surely a good sign, but due to such a low sample size means more or less nothing. Personally, I define "a certain group" as "a randomly selected group of any people". So let's take a stab at a concise definition.

    The percentage of people in a randomly selected group of people that, when shown a piece you art directed, indicated that they liked the piece.

    If you want to get more specific, you can ask how much they enjoyed the piece, and define taste as the average enjoyment rating. This would be a bit more accurate of a measure, because people can more accurately express their levels of enjoyment this way. If you want to take this definition instead, which is a bit more scientific, it would be:

    The average enjoyment level that a randomly selected group of people rate a piece that you art directed.

    Then if you want to generalize this out from "the taste with which you produced a single piece" to "your overall taste", it would be:

    The average enjoyment level that a randomly selected group or groups of people have rated a collection of pieces that you art directed and chose to present as the best representation of your taste.

    For example, if I were to make a movie poster, or curate an article of movie posters that other people have made, and 1000 randomly selected people that have no connection to you at all looked at it and rated what they thought of it, I would have a decent meter of how my taste is coming along. Then I did that for a bunch of different pieces I art directed, and averaged all of those out, I would have a good estimate of my "overall taste".

    Many people will argue with this and not agree. That's fair, the question you asked is very vague. The key word here is "good". This word can be defined for different people in different ways. For some people, "good" means that their taste impresses this specific group of people (critics in the business, friends or family members, only people that agree with them, etc). I am defining "good" here specifically as "impresses any randomly selected group of people". If you have a different group of people you want to impress, you can make this definition fit your own opinion by changing that specific wording, then you can be happy with it and not argue.

    I should add as an additional note, that based on the field you are talking about, the definition of the group that must be impressed to have good taste can change drastically, and this changes based on the needs of the field. For example, with consumer design, it is definitely "any randomly selected group of people", since you are selling to any random person. In fine art, it's "a small group of curators and critics", since the pieces selected to be in museums are made by these people, not the masses. So when considering how to have good taste, make sure to also adjust that to fit the field or industry you are aiming to have taste for. For UX/UI design, it's always "any random person", since you are designing interfaces for anyone, usually.

    0 points
    • Nathan CooperNathan Cooper, over 8 years ago

      I like this idea, but what about when the people you request feedback from don't like your subject? What if those same people admire the execution of your distasteful design? As with art in general, an artist could receive heaps of praise for their technique, but heaps of scorn for their subject.

      0 points
      • Jeff EscalanteJeff Escalante, over 8 years ago

        Your work as a whole is a combination of your technique and your subject. You cannot isolate one from the other in the judgement of your taste overall. If you are trying to personally figure out what part of your work needs improvement, you could try breaking them down when you ask people, but it's hard for a lot of people to separate the two.

        In order to measure the two separately, you'd have to do something tricky, like showing them a small section of the piece that doesn't give away the subject, but shows the style and technique, asking about how much they enjoy that, then taking that as a critique of your technique. If that returns good results, and showing your full piece returns worse results, then your subject selection is what needs work, and vice versa.

        1 point
        • Nathan CooperNathan Cooper, over 8 years ago

          I agree and perhaps I was conflating to the two. I thought it might be reductionist to say my taste is demonstrated by what I use, wear, or hang on my walls, buy, but that sounds like a succinct way to describe taste for me. For those things, subject and execution are both appealing. I wasn't referring to my own work, rather art in general. Thanks for you feedback.

          0 points
          • Jeff EscalanteJeff Escalante, over 8 years ago

            For sure, it definitely is. Because the things you hang on your walls, for example, are a collection of pieces that you have art directed. So if you want to find out your taste relative to the masses, you could have people rate your wall art. But in that case, the only person you are aiming to impress is yourself, since it's your personal wall art, so what the masses think of it isn't so important as what you think of it.

            For me, "good taste" is different in every situation, and is consistently decided by the person or group of people that the art is aiming to impress, which is exactly the thing that changes based on the situation, haha.

            You can also easily change your "taste" based on the situation. For example, I usually listen to rap, but if I had to make a mixtape for someone that I know likes indie music, I would try to adjust my taste to fit that situation and select indie music rather than just slamming rap songs on there. I think where people usually end up combining the two is that it's likely that I would do a better job with the indie mixtape if I also preferred indie music, just because I would likely have more experience with indie music if that was the case.

            But if you really break it down, personal preference and taste are different things at their core, that just happen to complement each other frequently due to the fact that personal preference for something will typically give you more experience and expertise in that area (since you like it, and spend more time with it), and experience and expertise tend to be strong factors that contribute to better taste.

            Wow, that ended up being really confusing. If you got through that mind maze with me, high five haha.

            2 points