Monday, April 12, 2004

Reading:: The Substance of Style

Originally posted: Mon, 12 Apr 2004 08:45:37

The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness

by Virginia Postrel

Early in The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel tells a story about a panel of designers at a conference being confronted by a man who objected to their profession. Why did they spend so much time trying to differentiate between nearly identical products such as Coke and Pepsi? Wasn't their profession a sort of lying, trying to manufacture differences where there are none?

That's the key question Postrel tries to answer in the book. It's a good question, one that parallels accusations leveled against rhetoric for the last couple of millenia. Unfortunately, Postrel's attempt to answer this question doesn't take the form of a coherent argument. Instead, she deploys a seemingly endless series of anecdotes about how design has changed our lives and perceptions. The anecdotes are often entertaining, but they lack precision and often Postrel doesn't seem to get anywhere.

Maybe in part that's because I am a rhetorician and am familiar with this basic argument. Maybe as an introduction to the value of design, this book is valuable to a general audience. But then again, compare it to marketing books such as Jack Trout's Differentiate or Die, which provides a surprisingly sophisticated rhetorical explanation of product branding in language that the lay person can easily understand.

Postrel's book is a quick read -- one afternoon for me, even with the TV on -- so it's not a huge time investment. If you want access to lots of anecdotes about product design or a primer on the style/substance question, by all means take a look. But don't expect sophisticated argumentation here.

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