Book Report: The Substance of Style by Virginia Postrel (2003)

I admit, I bought this book shortly after it came out in 2003 and am the last cool kid on the block to have finished it (As a matter of fact, Heather read my copy of this book in 2004 either soon before or soon after we met Virginia Postrel). As you all know, Ms. Postrel is the former editor of Reason magazine, the Libertarian bible, and blogs at The Dynamist in between donating portions of her very body to people.

That said, remember, gentle reader, I am studied in the mystical and uninspiring arts of philosophy. Ergo, I understand the differences between aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology, and all those sorts of branches of philosophy. I’ll admit, too, that I’ve skipped over the branch of aesthetics except for The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand. As a hard-bitten, realistic philosopher, I, too, have given aesthetics short shrift in my contemplations. However, as a hard-bitten, realistic software tester, I know that a difficult interface can render otherwise functional software as unusable. So I appreciate the importance of styling, but I also rankle at the elevation of aesthetics to a comparable value to actual function.

So forgive me my inherent bias here.

Postrel makes a good argument that people like pretty things and that visual and tactile pleasure offer a value comparable to other values, and that when consumers make choices, sometimes they’ll trade off other values to get visual and tactile pleasure. Also, given the march of progress, consumers get to pick sets of values (low price, functionality, AND beauty) or get to combine sets of values (low price AND beauty, functionality AND beauty) in ways they didn’t before, where they can trade something for beauty. So the world is becoming more custom and more pleasurable not strictly at the expense of other, more concrete values (but sometimes at that expense).

So I’ll call the book thought-provoking. Postrel makes her points and has done her research. I rankle when she puts beauty on par with functionality, and feel that she too easily discounts that beauty can still be artifice that hides low quality or poor functionality. She, of course, espouses a free market where rational customers buy from reasonable companies, but I’m a bit cynical and think that a lot of unscrupulous companies will try to deceive inattentive customers. In the aggregate, I suppose it will work out, but I’m not ready to elevate look and feel to the level of other things in the products I buy.

But I’m not letting the people I work with off the hook in products we build.

I’d like to take a moment to comment on the style of The Substance of Style. I didn’t actually care much for the prose of the book. The chapter titles were non-specific and the actual topics meandered. I found some of the references repetitve. The book seems more like a long essay stretched than a full book. But fortunately, you don’t read this book for the sound of its language but for the argument it makes.

Books mentioned in this review: