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Taste and Aesthetics
A Conversation with Ken Arnold, Part II
by Bill Venners
September 16, 2002

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Learning Taste

Bill Venners: How do you learn what is good and tasteful in design?

Ken Arnold: Some people have a natural sense. Other people have to learn. But to a large extent, what people have to learn is to value other people's problems.

Taste is a very personal thing. There is no textbook. When people ask me about books on object design, the books I hand them have nothing to do with object design per se. I commonly recommend The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman. This book promotes focusing on usability in the design of doors, teapots, and faucets -- everyday things. If you do that for objects, you'll have the idea.

Again the questions are, "What is the user coming at the problem with? What are they trying to accomplish?" Most people who have what I call bad taste are talking about themselves. When I express things in bad taste, which of course I am not immune from, I am usually talking about myself. I am not integrating my understanding with other people's understanding. If you can merge those together then you can acquire good taste. So teaching people taste is mostly teaching them how to listen and how to put themselves in someone else's place.

Instead of thinking from the implementation out, people need to think from the user in. As a designer, you may have two data structures that the user could merge to get a result, but do you understand that users don't care about your data structures? They just want to get the result. That is a revelation for many designers. Someone may have very good aesthetics if the problem is how to merge two data structures to get a result. But you can show them that that is not the question. The first step on the road, which many people miss, is asking, "What is the other person trying to do?"

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