taste & design

notes on Paul Graham's ideas on taste, beauty and design from some of his essays.


All of us had been trained by Kelly Johnson and believed fanatically in his insistence that an airplane that looked beautiful would fly the same way.

  • Ben Rich, Skunk Works

Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.

  • G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology

on taste

  • "taste is subjective."
    • museum guides tell you that you should pay attention because Leonardo is a great artist.
      • Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. it's not true.
    • Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do better. But if taste is just personal preference, then everyone's is already perfect and there is no way to get better at your job.
      • like anyone who gets better at their job, you'll know you're getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse ∴ taste can be wrong.
  • If there's no such thing as good taste, then there's no such thing as good art.
    • You can't have good actors, or novelists, or composers, or dancers either. You can have popular novelists, but not good ones.
    • It means we can't say that any painter is better than a randomly chosen eight year old.
    • This breaks art's commonly believed relativism.
  • The key to this puzzle is that art has an audience ∴ a purpose.
    • Humans have a lot in common but people do vary, which is why judging art is hard, especially recent art.
    • good art should be measured by how much it engages any human. a better piece of art is more interesting to people, and people's preferences aren't random.

on beauty

  • Beauty seems to be an example of a subjective quality, but once you narrow its definition to something that works a certain way on humans, it turns out humans have much in common, and beauty is a property of objects.
    • mathematicians call good work "beautiful," and so, either now or in the past, have scientists, engineers, musicians, architects, designers, writers, and painters. coincidence?
  • If there is such a thing as beauty, we need to be able to recognize it. Good taste then becomes this ability: We need good taste to make good things.

on design

  • Good design is simple.
    • In math it means that a shorter proof tends to be a better one.
    • It means much the same thing in programming.
    • For architects and designers it means that beauty should depend on a few carefully chosen structural elements rather than a profusion of superficial ornament.
    • Similarly, in painting, a still life of a few carefully observed and solidly modelled objects will tend to be more interesting than a stretch of flashy but mindlessly repetitive painting of, say, a lace collar.
    • In writing it means: say what you mean and say it briefly.
    • You'd think simple would be the default. Ornate is more work.
    • When you're forced to be simple, you're forced to face the real problem. When you can't deliver ornament, you have to deliver substance.
  • Good design is timeless.
    • In math, every proof is timeless unless it contains a mistake.
    • if you can make something that appeals to people today and would also have appealed to people in 1500, there is a good chance it will appeal to people in 2500.
  • Good design solves the right problem.
    • The typical stove has four burners arranged in a square, and a dial to control each. The dials are for humans to use, better to arrange the dials in a square like the burners.
    • In the mid twentieth century there was a vogue for setting text in sans-serif fonts. These fonts are closer to the pure, underlying letterforms. But in text that's not the problem you're trying to solve. For legibility it's more important that letters be easy to tell apart. It may look Victorian, but a Times Roman lowercase g is easy to tell from a lowercase y.
    • Physics progressed faster as the problem became predicting observable behavior, instead of reconciling it with scripture.
  • Good design is suggestive.
    • Jane Austen's novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.
    • a painting that suggests is usually more engaging than one that tells. Everyone makes up their own story about the Mona Lisa.
    • In architecture and design, this principle means that a building or object should let you use it how you want: a good building, for example, will serve as a backdrop for whatever life people want to lead in it,
    • In software, it means you should give users a few basic elements that they can combine as they wish, like Lego.
    • In math it means a proof that becomes the basis for a lot of new work is preferable to a proof that was difficult, but doesn't lead to future discoveries;
    • in the sciences generally, citation is considered a rough indicator of merit.
  • Good design is often slightly funny.
    • I think it's because humor is related to strength. To have a sense of humor is to be strong: to keep one's sense of humor is to shrug off misfortunes, and to lose one's sense of humor is to be wounded by them.
    • The confident will often, like swallows, seem to be making fun of the whole process slightly, as Hitchcock does in his films or Bruegel in his paintings-- or Shakespeare, for that matter.
  • Good design is hard.
    • When you have to climb a mountain you toss everything unnecessary out of your pack. And so an architect who has to build on a difficult site, or a small budget, will find that he is forced to produce an elegant design.
    • In art, the highest place has traditionally been given to paintings of people. There is something to this tradition, and not just because pictures of faces get to press buttons in our brains that other pictures don't.
      • We are so good at looking at faces that we force anyone who draws them to work hard to satisfy us. If you draw a tree and you change the angle of a branch five degrees, no one will know. When you change the angle of someone's eye five degrees, people notice.
  • Good design looks easy.
    • The easy, conversational tone of good writing comes only on the eighth rewrite.
    • In science and engineering, some of the greatest discoveries seem so simple that you say to yourself, I could have thought of that.
    • Line drawings are in fact the most difficult visual medium, because they demand near perfection.
    • In math terms, they are a closed-form solution; lesser artists literally solve the same problems by successive approximation.
  • When Bauhaus designers adopted Sullivan's "form follows function," what they meant was, form should follow function. And if function is hard enough, form is forced to follow it, because there is no effort to spare for error.

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