The role of taste (and what it means)

February 12, 2023

Happy Sunday from Brooklyn, NY. This week, many new memories made were in familiar places in my former neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. I lived in the neighborhood near the promenade overlooking the iconic bridge named after the borough and skyline of Manhattan for four years—a place still that feels like home every time I visit.

In addition to being home to the best Sardinian restaurant in New York, Brooklyn Heights is where Adam Yauch Park, is named after the legendary member of the Beastie Boys, MCA. Formerly, Squibb Park, the park was renamed to dedicate Yauch, who died of cancer in 2012 (RIP MCA). Brooklyn Heights is where Yauch grew up, and his mom Frances still lived there at the time I was there. This isn’t an important prelude, but a segue to talk about a man who had a close relationship with the Beastie Boys and many other iconic musicians: Rick Rubin. This week, we’ll talk about Rubin as the proxy of the role of taste in design.

Rick Ruben (3rd from the left) with the Beastie Boys. (Photo: Ricky Powell)

A few weeks ago, 60 Minutes posted their 60 Minutes interview, a sit-down with Anderson Cooper and Rick Rubin, a record producer, and co-founder of Def Jam Records. This interview is in part of the launch of Rubin’s new book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being. The tweet from the 60 Minutes account sparked many thoughts about Rubin, such as, “what does he actually do then?”

Wait, what on Earth does Rubin actually do then? Is he one of those “I have an app idea” guys (it’s always a guy) who needs the talents of product developers who can actually build the app? Surely someone who hasn’t been a designer cannot have design taste because they haven’t spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to the Rhode Island School of Design, right? The answer is, Rubin is kind of like all these things, but he’s damn good at his job, which is having great taste, spotting talent, and popularizing it. Rubin represented artists such as the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, and the litany of legends go on.

Let’s talk about taste and the role it plays in creativity and software. “Taste” undefined is vague like those words that generalize without substance, like “cultural fit.” In essence, taste is curating subjectivity in a way that brings objectivity to your vision. It’s the ability to say, “this is dope, and I’ll tell you in a detailed manner why it is.” Taste is being able to articulate why you enjoy the Riot in Belgium’s remix of Chromeo’s Bonafied Lovin more than the original.

Everyone has taste, but not all of it is good. In fact, much of it is bad. For example, I could tell you I love Nickelback and listen to it every waking minute of my life (to be clear, I don’t) but that doesn’t mean my taste is good in comparison to the taste of others. Taste also doesn't equate to things you like. I love watching The Expendables or Jean-Claude Van Damme films but would absolutely not equate that to my film curation of great taste.

Taste without credibility doesn’t go far

There was a reason artists like LL Cool J were sending demo tapes to Rick Rubin’s dorm room at NYU to get it in front of him. His taste was respected and trend-setting. There are two ways to get respect for your taste. The first is Rubin's way, where you have such a grasp on what you like that it influences how other people like it. The second is having a such pedigree in the work you've done in your craft that people respect your taste. As a designer and builder, the second one is your greatest power.

Taste and skills are a powerful combo, though not mutually exclusive

Rick Rubin is not a musician, he’s a producer. They are two different roles the same way a Product Manager and Designer are different roles. Rubin’s role is not to be a legendary musician, it’s to ensure legendary music gets produced and get it adopted by the mass audiences. The role of taste is spotting what makes the product pleasing and articulating to people.

On the flip side, it is possible for a person to be highly skilled in their craft and have a low form of taste. Perhaps the technical proficiency is through the roof, but the expression of it does not resonate with the audience. You can design interfaces or write software that has absolutely no taste, and having taste can be the differentiator between what you make vs. an interface generated by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

There are people who are producers and musicians—excelling at both. Dr. Dre, Dave Grohl, Pharrell, and Trent Reznor are all musicians who are producers as well. They are the product-minded designers of the music industry.

Articulating taste

One of my favorite series is Detail by the late great Kobe Bryant on ESPN. In this series, Bryant breaks down the specific attributes of what makes certain players great—a great comparison of how great taste can be articulated. Saying something is modern or on brand without any articulation of why is not taste. It's saying a very obvious thing with no substance.

Developing taste

I don’t believe taste is a god-given skill only a chosen few have the same way Sir Edward de Bono believes creativity is a skill that can be nurtured and grown. The sense of taste comes more naturally to some and takes years to develop, so you’re going to have to practice a lot.

The famous radio personality Ira Glass has a great quote about this in his interview The Art of Storytelling:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years, you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

I’m not telling you to go be a producer and focus on only taste, but your taste will be the differentiator between you and other designers or software engineers in the craft of your work. A lot of people have taste, but very few dare to have a greater taste and be creative. If you’re at a loss on how to develop taste, here are a few quick ideas of ways to practice:

  • Write as a form of critique. Whether it's about design aesthetics or delightful apps you’ve used recently, write about the attributes that connect it to the taste you have. You don’t even have to publish it.
  • Make mood boards of objects that have similar creative attributes. Can you find a piece of furniture that has similar aesthetics to a piece of hardware or software?
  • When listening to music you like, break down what makes you develop the taste. Is it the type of vocals, rhythm, lyrics, or something else?

Taste builds an objective standard for very subjective topics. I will bet in any profession you’ll work with someone who has taste without skill. Instead of balking at them, find ways to collaborate (remember, you have to respect them in order for this to work).

There are many Rick Rubin and Beastie Boys relationships throughout industries. The brand marketer works with the creative director, venture capitalists, and founder, etc. It’s quite possible that a16z is the Def Jam Records of tech (don’t tell them that).

In a world where generative AI, design systems, and automation of software (which I am a huge supporter of), perhaps having great taste is the most human factor we can hold on to as a differentiator. Happy taste-making and curating.

Originally posted on Substack

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