“In any other country, Milton Glaser would have been knighted by now,” said Steven Heller about the legendary designer recently. The implication: Americans don’t care about design as much as people in other countries.

A recent email conversation touched on the same nerve…

crosstour“I don’t think they could have made it any uglier if they had tried—even if they were trying really, really hard to make it ugly.”

That’s what ex-37signaller and now Nike employee Ernest Kim wrote in a note to a few of us about the 2010 Accord Crosstour (shown here). Looks like others agree with him too.

Ernest wonders why the cars Honda designs for markets outside the U.S. look better than the ones designed specifically for the American market. Could it be that Americans just have bad taste?

The sad part to me is that Honda cars designed for markets outside of the U.S. generally look at least decent (examples being the Fit, Euro/Japan Accord (aka the Acura TSX here in the States), S2000), but the ones specifically for U.S. consumption are horrendous (examples being this awful Crosstour, the Pilot SUV and Ridgeline pick-up).

One reason might simply be that their U.S.-based design team is not very good, but I suspect it has more to do with U.S.-based focus groups and lowered standards for U.S. focused products, which is the approach that led to GM’s eventual bankruptcy.

I know it’s the trendy thing to do to say that Americans, on the whole, have bad taste, but I really believe it’s true. A product that’s just good enough to be wildly popular in the U.S. typically doesn’t make the cut anywhere.

I have to wonder why our standards seem to be so much lower? Having traveled to Europe and Asia, I don’t think the average European or Asian person is any smarter than the average American, but their standards for product design seem appreciably higher. Is it because people outside the U.S. tend to buy fewer items and so have higher expectations for those items? Or some other cultural influence that they have and we don’t?

What do you guys think?

I responded:

Interesting question re: the taste of Americans. I think there’s def more of a culture of design in Europe and some parts of Asia/S America. Even little things tend to look designed. Even if it’s just a restaurant menu or signage for a bookstore. There’s an appreciation for details and things that look good.

Fashion is certainly an area where this holds true too. In Turkey, I would see people who were broke dressing in tailored, 3-piece suits. Maybe they only had one, but they wore it. In America, most people dress like slobs (esp compared to, say, Italians). Maybe that’s related?

Maybe it’s because our culture is so much younger? We don’t have historical precedents so we just make it up as we go along meaning there’s no foundation of taste set? Just kinda guessing.

Ernest’s response:

As I was reading your note I began to draw the same conclusion, re: the relative youth (or perhaps immaturity might be an even more apt word) of our culture. I was wondering too if, in these other, more tradition-bound and generally more homogeneous cultures, the arbiters of taste, whoever they may be, hold more sway than in our decentralized, highly heterogeneous society?

There’s a hiccup to this “the youth of our culture” angle though. Things used to be a lot more beautiful here. Check out the gorgeous style of the early 60’s as depicted on Mad Men. Look back at photos of the 20’s: People wore suits while waiting in breadlines. And decades ago, American cars were gorgeous.


Also, could it be that Americans lose the battle of aesthetics but do better at other kinds of design? Like creating functional stores that are designed better for consumption, for example. And one could argue our political system, clogged as it is, is “designed” better than, say, the Italian system. Maybe Americans lost focus on aesthetics because we’re more interested in efficiency. If so, is that better or worse?

Ok, ok…we’re really getting into generalities here. But it’s interesting to ponder nonetheless. So what do you think? Is it just snobs who fail to see the beauty of modern American design? Or do you think design is better in other parts of the world? If so, why?