“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…
“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?
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.
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?
Sachaon 28 Sep 09
I think the answer, like you said, is that Americans focus on different things. I’m French, and some things might look “better designed” over here, but every time I go to the US I’m amazed at how practical and useful everyday items are. Even infomercials like Shamwow denote a focus on improving daily life through better design (not saying that the product really has that effect, just that it’s marketed this way).
I do wonder why they improve the functionality without improving the looks. Maybe it’s the same thing as the Craigslist effect ?
Anonymous Cowardon 28 Sep 09
Apple, as arbiter of taste, holds plenty sway in all societies whose members can afford phones that cost hundreds of dollars.
I see greatest difference in approach to design in buildings, bridges, and such. American structures don’t seem to even consider design, american bridges typically are butt ugly, very utilitarian. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s European history of architecture (and design)
Peter J.on 28 Sep 09
H.L. Mencken has written thoroughly about Americans lust for the hideous, their delight of ugliness for its own sake. Americans have a libido for the ugly. Their horrible exhibitions are not due to mere ignorance or innocence.
37 signals are different though.
Martin Pilkingtonon 28 Sep 09
I’m not sure the efficiency argument really flies. Look at Germany, re-knowned for its efficiency but producing some of the best cars in the world.
I have noticed frequently when I see advertisements or product packaging from the US that it does seem to be of less quality than similar products or adverts in the UK. Take something as simple as Kelloggs corn flakes. Here is the US packaging (from Kelloggs website, so I’m assuming it is recent): http://www2.kelloggs.com/ServeImage.aspx?BID=63729&MD5=9727046f68aaa6d1ca956c0229af1f9a&W=220
And here is the UK packaging: http://i.groceries.asda.com:80/g/012/097/5000127012097_21000_IDShot_2.jpeg
It also extends to television. Before digital a comparison of NTSC vs PAL would almost always show PAL having a much better picture quality. You could always tell the US shows even on mute, by the fact that the picture was fuzzy.
I think this is due to culture, but specifically the lack of exposure the US has to other cultures. Europe has a lot of very distinct cultures in an area roughly the same size as the US. This leads to lots of exposure and other ideas. You also have the fact that Britain and France had expansive empires during the 18th to early 20th centuries. There was a huge influx of influence from asian countries such as China and especially India.
The US started by having a lot of culture as people came from all over when it was young. Now it is getting a little stagnant as it gets harder and harder for someone from another country to move there. And the fact that Americans aren’t renowned for their desire to go to another country doesn’t help either (granted from a geographical point of view, America has enough diversity to entertain someone for a lifetime).
Much like genetics, cultural diversity helps a lot, at the moment the US is starting to become culturally imbred, though this is something that has affected many countries around the world at some point.
Bradon 28 Sep 09
Fernandoon 28 Sep 09
Americans are more pragmatic. They care more about function than aesthetics: big cars with big cup-holders (ugly but comfortable).
I second that, in general, American taste is… hmmm “different”. But I’d also point that America is quite diverse (Californians tastes differ from New Yorkers and Texans).
I’d add that Americans care (a lot) about keeping costs down, which might impact the amount of effort put on design.
Chasonon 28 Sep 09
I think that the American sensibility (despite a detour in the 30-50s due to massive European immigration) has always been about practicality, with an obsessive asceticism regarding design. Highly designed objects are seen as signs of an aristocracy, whereas utilitarianism reflects our plain spoken, Protestant roots.
Steve Breweron 28 Sep 09
American’s put lots of stuff ahead of design.
For cars, we put safety, cost, reliability, and utility. Check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5CU-k0XmLUk&feature=player_embedded
And, news of the day, the French are standing behind Polanski because he’s such a great artists. We’re going to lock him up.
I’ll take safer cars and imprisoned rapists over gorgeous cars and The Pianist 2.
Jonason 28 Sep 09
The focus group theory of Americans preferring the more generic/ugly looking cars is a definite possibility. This reminds me of how Microsoft makes their windows mouse packaging noisy and flashy, while they make their packaging for apple mice much cleaner in comparison – http://img246.imageshack.us/img246/6198/microsoftmousepackaging.jpg. Through focus testing, they probably found out that most windows users prefer the cluttered packaging style, while mac users don’t.
Marceloon 28 Sep 09
When I see american designs, I usually think of the “American dream”, where the objective is having a bigger house, bigger car, “powerful” car..
Nathanon 28 Sep 09
I heard girls are so much cooler in Europe, and drugs are legal. College is gonna be awesome
Brotheron 28 Sep 09
Polanski isn’t “a rapist”. 30 years ago the consent age in many parts of the world was 13.
Ahmad Alhashemion 28 Sep 09
I think it has to do with capitalism and consumerism. I think this might be related to what your initial thought that Americans have more items.
Americans are obsessed by the feature to price ratio because they are thinking in terms of return on investment in everything they buy. Even consumables are sold in larger packages in the US because of the perceived value benefit.
American marketing books actively advice against making the product presentable because then it will make people think that it is a bad value for money.
Tim Caseon 28 Sep 09
Decades ago American car manufacturers specifically catered to different market segments. So a Cadillac was really different from a Buick which in turn was different from a Chevrolet, this changed a lot in the eighties with a push to consolidate mass media with mass consumerism and “go for the numbers” by selling cars that could capture the biggest markets. This movement continued stronger through the nineties and early millennium, and there are those who speculate that it is only now starting to show signs of change.
I think mass market is a distinctly American concept and underpins why the culture is the way it is. It explains why every city in America has the same starbucks/apple bys/walmart/home depot/cosco layout.
If one is good, ten are better.
Jon Jon 28 Sep 09
I think that Americans buy more quantity, as the article points out. Most Europeans I know (including family) indicate that they would never buy something on credit unless it was an item they know they could pay off in the same month, or an absolute emergency. I think that this does yield a higher scrutiny of each item purchased. I know that I am personally far more rigorous with my pre-purchase research than a lot of friends I know. Space may have something to do with it too. I recently rented a book about Japanese homes/apartments, for example. Limited space yields a much higher concern with functionality and design. America has ample space outside of major cities and eyesores are easily hidden. Cost vs. per-capita income may also play a role in easily ignoring bad design. If each purchase made is known to be replaceable (or expected to be replaced in a short amount of time), then each decision matters less. In some senses, having fewer resources might mean that each decision matters more—so long as the individual in question knew how to make good decisions. Finally, I think many other countries have a better committment to the arts than America. Even when the beauty is rustic, and though this is subjective, many non-American countries make their public spaces look nicer than what I’ve seen in the majority of America. Perhaps age of the community, heritage, and consistency helps. The appreciation of good design is certainly something that needs to be instilled from an early age. I think all of these issues lead to things like the Hummer polluting our freeways.
Martin Edicon 28 Sep 09
I have a 2008 Civic that I think is a very well-designed car, inside and out. I drove an Accord when shopping and did not like it- too much like an American boat and ugly (chrome plastic trim inside? What’s up with that?). It’s almost as though there are two totally separate design groups for these cars. My brother has an ‘09 CRV and it appears to share many design motifs with the Civic.
Anonymous Cowardon 28 Sep 09
Hmm, the evidence in the post is pretty shaky. To start with the Crosstour shares many of the design elements of the gorgeously designed 60’s cars – it certainly looks more like a 60’s cruiser than the boxy Fit. I’d be interested in hearing which elements are adding up to ugly for you, and how they don’t equal ugly in past generations?
Ultimately I think you are comparing an apple to an orange, and revealing you like apples. The Crosstour is a muscle car, it is supposed to look powerful. The Fit is a commuter car, it looks non-descript. The fact that the muscle car is still popular in the US, is likely cultural, but within that culture the Crosstour is well-designed.
jonon 28 Sep 09
Quantity over quality, is the american design ethic. If you have not figured this out than you should get out of the business of calling yourself expects on design.
Chrison 28 Sep 09
I have a hard time believing this ugliness is spawned by focus groups. And if it is, please stop doing focus groups!
As a happy owner of a 2004 Honda Pilot, I was looking forward to upgrading to the new model. When I saw the new model, I was dumbfounded. What happened??? No way I’m going to drive that ugly thing. So I’ll be sticking with my 2004 Pilot until the wheels fall off (thanks for saving me lots of money, Honda).
I’ve yet to find anyone, American or otherwise, that thinks the new Pilot is attractive in any way, shape or form. I think sales will definitely be hurt, but Honda could easily blame that on the recession and the move away from SUVs without accepting (or admitting) that the new Pilot is one ugly mutha.
chrisbon 28 Sep 09
“Maybe Americans lost focus on aesthetics because we’re more interested in efficiency.”
Or not, considering that the culture has no problem with “cars” that weigh 4 tonnes and get 8mpg with a following wind.
I think its more to do with price – the average American car is dirt cheap compared to the equivalent in Britain/Europe – the manufacturers don’t need to be good, they just need to be cheap…
JTon 28 Sep 09
On the other hand you have Apple, designing lustworthy products and branding ‘designed in California’ in all its packages.
How about this: beauty sometimes conveys paradoxal feelings, i.e. ‘where is the catch?’. - a beautiful woman: must be superficial - a beautiful car: must be expensive, bad MPG… - a beautiful packaging: must be expensive
In a way a utilitarian design, although ugly, is sometimes the sought after goal. After all some animals have evolved in doing just that for their survival.
Now: back to the Honda: it’s ugly as hell.
Niallon 28 Sep 09
I am not too sure about this whole ‘Americans are immature/ have such a young culture’, culture is affected so much by technology that old conventions and rituals pale in comparison, and as the US is really a more forward looking place ( I emigrated to North America from Europe ) in some sense, it is the most mature society on earth.
This is a secondary point to the focus of the post but I hear this so often I felt compelled to comment; I think the utilitarian ethic is what really drives US culture and prosperity, even back in the 19th century the US had this kind of reputation, Dostoevsky described America as a nation of mechanics and he’d never been there.
The old cliche is that any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic, it becomes so polished that its mechanisms are indiscernable from the outside, so if you’ve been making swords for a 1000 years they look great, perhaps the reason things in north america look so ugly is that this is a place where new things are always in the throws of creation, where the tricky details are being worked out and not a place where new ideas go to be iterated into ‘magic’
Dan Thorntonon 28 Sep 09
I actually quite like ‘ugly’ cars – and remember as an American, you’ll probably run into the better examples of European design and miss out on some of the hideous mistakes that get made because they faded into obscurity.
The ‘market specific’ ugliness that always amazes me is that videogames are generally distributed with different art for different regions, and the American version is generally hideously ugly for no good reason – I think it’s a presumption that art etc generally needs to be simplified, whereas people that appreciate good design etc can be found anywhere – and particularly as the internet allows good design to be shared so quickly with a global community.
Davide Di Cilloon 28 Sep 09
Yes, I think Americans have generally bad tasted compared to other countries. And it’s not about the cost, because on average Americans spend way more than any other country. I come from Italy and I grew up that I can buy something only when I can afford it. Here seems you buy stuff when you credit line is high enough. If Americans cared about saving money with cars, they would buy cars with 1.4L engines (like we don in Europe) instead of 5.0L.
Also another factor is education. Our school system has a broader base of topics, and all of them with a certain cultural weight. We don’t have “fillers” like “cooking” classes (unless it’s a cooking school). We study art and history of most parts of the earth no matter what your major is. From my limited experience I noticed that way too many people have no idea of what’s outside the America’s borders.
Esme Voson 28 Sep 09
There’s one exception: Apple. They design beautiful products that people in other countries love. Nokia, on the other hand, does not have the most beautiful phones in the world, in my opinion. The user interface is also awful. On the other hand, I have traveled a lot in Finland, Sweden, Denmark (and have lived in the Netherlands for a long time) - there seems to be a greater sensitivity to good design. Of course, you cannot compare Northern Europeans to Italians when it comes to clothing - Italians outshine everyone. That’s why they have a real design industry (fashion, furniture, etc.). Alfa makes gorgeous cars!
Lee Baileyon 28 Sep 09
I believe it also has a little to do with marketing. Americans appear to be more susceptible to marketing spiel than Europeans, for example. You only need to take a look at the countless number of ‘sales letter’ websites for ebooks, most of which are produced by Americans, for Americans. The same tactic simply doesn’t work in Europe.
You can market a product quicker than you can design or develop it.
Davide Beninion 28 Sep 09
I agree with Marcelo’s point about ‘size’, which seems to be a (the?) focal point of the US aesthetic. This is probably due to that you folks have a lot of space to fill (compare American vs European cars, roads, parking, buildings etc); but I guess it’s also due to deeper reasons. American cities are very beautiful from an aerial point of view: see all the intros of soaps and series: aerial views of Boston, NY, etc. Your cities are like the mountains, beautiful because they’re majestic. Yet, if one focus closer there’s no comparison with European cities. It’s as if American sided with the sublime, while European settled with beautiful. This might be also linked to the Protestant root of American culture (aiming for the sky and transcendence, not earthly beauty). I also agree about with Matt’s point about Italy: our aesthetics are more refined, but your government works better, no doubt about it. I guess aesthetics is the virtue and the sickness of Italy; probably America’s obsession with efficience is also a double-edged sword.
Chip Ramseyon 28 Sep 09
The seeming lack of taste in America is something that has crossed my mind on a number of occasions. The thought typically leads me in two different directions.
1) We design by consensus in America. In other words, after a design passes through air tunnel streamlining, marketing surveys and focus groups determine the final product. In my opinion this argument is closely related to valuing utility over aesthetic.
2) We have so many products that we buy, music that we listen to, movies that we watch – that the shear volume and accessibility makes decade defining trends almost impossible. Over time as technologies for creating products have advanced, we’ve become a country of micro trends and highly fragmented genres. We used to have 70’s and 80’s theme parties in high school and college. Have you ever heard of anyone having a 90’s party? What would that be? Flannel shirts and an endless loop of “Smells like Teen Spirit?” I think at some point, the people who made higher ticket items, such as cars, lost direction and were left no clear trends to safely explore.
Will we ever return to creating products as opinionated as the art deco inspired cars of the 30’s or the tailfins of the 50’s? I doubt it. Not unless the bloated dinosaurs of our automobile industry are allowed to die and smaller more nimble companies like Fiske and Tesla are given a chance to compete in their place.
ambrosenon 28 Sep 09
Interestingly enough, another non-American manufacturer does this with its American designed models: BMW with its X6, which is pretty similar to the Accord Crosstour.
@Steve Brewer: the only one of those 4 criteria you mentioned on which the US car industry beats the European is cost. Safety and reliability are pretty good either side of the Atlantic, and it’s not clear to me whether utility in this context is a measurable variable.
So my thoughts lean towards a different aesthetic.
I suspect that is because the smallest 50% of cars on the market is the part with the (very) low margins, and as the North American car market comprises larger models, their low margin cars compete against the European/Japanese manufacturers’ breadwinning models.
Patrick Thorntonon 28 Sep 09
I can’t help but wonder if part of the issue with American cars is safety requirements. American cars have been getting heavier and bigger for decades because of these requirements. The car pictured above may be beautiful, but it’s horribly unsafe. That might be a large part of this issue.
But I do think Americans don’t care that much about aesthetics. Look at much of the horrible architecture springing up in suburbs and exurbs around this country. Everything is built to be A) big and B) cheap. Quality, aesthetics never seems to be a large consideration. American cars are certainly big and they’ree relatively affordable. Perhaps, Americans don’t want to spend money to look good?
In sum, I agree that Americans don’t place a high value on taste. Americans like things big, cheap and plentiful. I’m not sure, however, if this applies to cars, or if you’re over looking something more practical, like safety regulations.
Brookson 28 Sep 09
Don’t confuse standards with priorities. Design is certainly less of a priority in the U.S. than in some countries. In the continuum between form and function, Americans strongly favor function.
Of course, you can have both form and function, but since they both take resources to develop, asking for both tends to drive price up.
Nateon 28 Sep 09
“1) We design by consensus in America.”
@Chip and others. Does anyone have any idea how the design process is different in Europe and Asia? Are car manufacturers there avoiding focus groups all together or are they still running their own local focus groups?
Fazal Majidon 28 Sep 09
American car designers are not so hot either. Detroit’s ingrained culture of planned obsolescence may be to blame. If you look at older cars, European designs usually hold up much better with time. This makes BMW’s choice of Chris Bangle as chief designer all the more inexplicable. Thank goodness he resigned.
Adam Buchanonon 28 Sep 09
It’s the Walmartization of America. People have been willingly conditioned to accept mediocrity as common place.
rickon 28 Sep 09
Americans care more about reliability and affordability than they do about design.
Toyota is the best selling car in the US. The look and the feel of their cars is horrible. But they are affordable and reliable.
But if you can package all three, you’ll get a hit. Example: the Mini.
Nateon 28 Sep 09
I’m also curious what happens if someone came up with a more rigorous analysis (or 2) of some kind of criteria. Like US cars definitely seem to stand out like a sore thumb. So if you were to come up with 30 categories of consumer products where do the top companies lie, especially in regards to design.
Like for cars and electronics it would seem non-US is winning these categories. But software + computers + household goods like (P&G and their swiffer, or OXO and anything, or Method) seem to have a lot of well respected US companies in terms of design.
I’m not saying I know how to do this analysis (or how to handle things like I believe the swiffer may have been designed outside of the US maybe initially?), but it seems like something worthy to do in this type of discussion.
Peteron 28 Sep 09
I don’t think we can say that Americans don’t care about design, or have bad taste. Look at what apple has done recently. They have become a success on the very basis of good design and they are more successful here than anywhere. Perhaps it is time that we throw out focus groups and design nice looking products, period. There will always be a portion of people who need to be educated but normally if you put a beautiful object next to a ugly one anybody would choose the beautiful one. If all cars available in the US were nicely designed (regardless of price) then we would all drive nice looking cars. Are there really ugly cars available in these other markets? If not shouldn’t we look at that statistic? Price plays a role but if ugly weren’t available we wouldn’t buy it at all.
Dougon 28 Sep 09
How well did the PT Cruiser do in the US versus a global market?
Daveon 28 Sep 09
I think valuing reliability and affordability over style/fashion is a very defensible position.
And why, oh why is wearing a suit in a breadline a good thing? Superficial much? And shouldn’t we reserve our best for special occasions?
And what about comfort?
I realize I’m arguing with most of the world here, but why that’s the case is beyond me.
moeon 28 Sep 09
I grew up in Southern California where car taste is usually split down the middle. Half buy cars for reliability and gas mileage, while the other half buy purely out of fashion and social stature. For example, there is no real reason to drive a SUV in So Cal, but, at a point, every other house had one. There is no reason to get a Ford 150 and raise it to the sky or even drive a truck when you don’t haul anything around.
I think American car design philosophy is usually “bigger is better”. However, I have noticed it changing in the last two years. Btw, this is coming from a guy that drives a 1991 Nissan Sentra and refuses to buy a new car.
Jonon 28 Sep 09
Having lived in the US for ~8 years my observation is that American products are driven to a large degree by price. People want things that are cheap and one expense that can be saved is design. And quality. The average crap sold in stores like Target would not be acceptable in most stores in the UK. It would be sold at a $1 store or market where all the real shit is pedalled to the super low income/no income folks.
You can find things of reasonably high quality and design in the US but they seem to be less available, harder to find, always marketed as European style, “gourmet” (for food products, obviously…) and MUCH HIGHER PRICED than for equivalent goods in Europe.
Benjamin Welchon 28 Sep 09
I have no idea why this is. But honestly, things have come really easy to me being born here. I was born into a good family. Had really supportive parents. Went to a great school. And I take it for granted. If I get chubby or where my pajamas all day, it’s not really going to cause me trouble. At least at this point in my life. It’s too easy to get away with being a slob. The consequences are just too subtle. In the US you can get by being mediocre and for some, that’s enough.
I still think that car looks like shit though.
Gilbertoon 28 Sep 09
Sorry, but I don’t agree with the arguments: design x safety / design x price.
Germans have good design cars and some of the safety ones.
One of the most well designed object is the BIC crystal pen (after more then 50 years, it’s still being used). It is far from be expensive.
I think companies here in USA are generally more conservative and they just don’t accept new/innovative design ideas.
I’m working in Florida and that’s what I see here. If I come with an innovative solution and other person comes with a solution from the 90s, they will choose the one from the 90s. I hate this!
Nickon 28 Sep 09
Maybe I’m reaching, but I think a lot of it has to do with space. The United States is rare in its low population density (I think Australia is the only industrialized nation with fewer people per square mile). This means we can “afford” to waste, and focus more on the utility of an item, and then throw it away.
Thinking about many places in Europe, Japan, and China, with such drastically higher population density; there just isn’t as much space to waste, not enough land for massive landfills, etc. So if you buy bicycle, a pen, a whatever; there’s a much higher likelihood that the buyer will have it in their possession longer, and then it’d better be easy on the eyes or you’ll go crazy. Americans use and throw away. Rinse and repeat.
I think in a few hundred years, the land in the US will fill up just fine and then we’ll have to actually conserve our space and think about where we put our refuse. Until then, it’s big, shoddy, one-time-use consumerism for us! ;)
Jinon 28 Sep 09
Why do people talk about design vs function vs cost in a dichotomous way?
In many cases, a bad design is just as costly to produce as a good one. It’s the taste, or emphasis of the taste that matter.
Ikea is inexpensive and the designs are good and usable.
I tend to agree that Americans(in general) don’t have a refine taste as Europeans and Japanese. Look at the cookie-cutter, soul-less houses in the suburbs and cheap interiors of an American car(even expensive ones that look decent on the outside).
As to why this is, I don’t have an answer.
Bradeon 28 Sep 09
I wonder if it has to do with the general American corporate reliance on market research and bureaucracy, two things I know 37signals stands against ;) It seems like too many opinions get in the way between initial design and final product.
Perhaps in other countries this is not as big of a problem? I’m totally hazarding a guess, but perhaps it’s even a symptom of the rampant specialization in today’s job world in the U.S. You have people trained specifically to be managers or marketers, with no real familiarity or deep appreciation of the industry/product they may be managing or marketing. They may also be the ones hiring a designer when their own sense of design is not very keen.
Danielon 28 Sep 09
In my trips to the US, I’ve noticed that many things are designed to last longer than otherwise comparable European products, while others are single-use where the European equivalent isn’t. So where US products lie to one one side or the other, European products seem to be somewhere in the middle.
That in and of itself says nothing about the aesthetics, only about other design factors such as durability, and where the focus lies.
But regarding aesthetics, I think there’s a simple explanation to differences between the US and Europe (I can’t speak for Asia, sorry):
America is huge and unified, while Europe may be huge but not unified. The markets and workforces in Europe are just smaller. A European country can’t generally compete with the US, or at least not on the same terms. So I think the differences in approach to aesthetic design may be the result of European companies producing prettier products because it works better for short-run, more expensive products, produced for smaller markets, by a smaller (and hence also more expensive) workforce. Cheap products can’t make up their costs in sales volume, like the case is in the US.
The difference in durability can also be explained in this way, since in the US you can make products that last a lifetime, without running out of customers. But in Europe the smaller markets make this dangerous.
My 2 cents.
Aris Barteeon 28 Sep 09
The issue with American design is that it is made for the masses, a heterogeneous mass with wildly diverse subcultures. The design is see in other cultures are for a narrower group with the culture as a whole. This means that design is actually worth it.
The Apple case stated drives the point home. Apple products are not designed for the masses. We joke that the products are for Steve Jobs and he allows us to buy them :) I’ll also venture out and claim that this why 37 Signal’s products look well designed to me, but look butt ugly to a few of my friends. The apps aren’t designed for them. As well as, anything that isn’t designed for us, will not look pleasing, no matter how much we appreciate the work that went to the design.
Nathan Bowerson 28 Sep 09
In general it’s because American design culture is more about solving problems with brute force instead of thoughtful leverage.
Ben Ackleson 28 Sep 09
Just a heads up. Your RSS feed is not linking back to this article from the title.
Jeffon 28 Sep 09
I dunno, I’m not sure anyone has the monopoly on taste, good or bad. Granted, recent decades have not been kind to American aesthetics in many areas, but in decades past we had Frank Lloyd Wright, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, Harvard University, etc. Now we have Walmart but Europe has Ikea who’s design pathos seems to be, “Oh, you live in shoebox so buy bunches of cheap and ugly crap so you can eat, sleep, and watch TV in the same 100 square feet of space.”
Maybe that’s swinging below the belt but hey, Walmart != America, alright. I buy socks and pipe fittings at big box stores – I buy my lamps at garage sales where you can find the really cool stuff, build my own furniture and haven’t even been inside a Walmart for > 10 years!
Corey Reidon 28 Sep 09
American culture is strongly biased away from anything that smacks of “elitism”—I suspect “refined” designs do poorer in America not because Americans prefer UGLY things but because they have a built-in distrust of things that are “too fancy”, or “high fashion”.
Maybe the new Honda should be called the “Harrison Bergeron”.
Rickon 28 Sep 09
I think it goes back to a long seated ethos based on the nature of the country itself. America has been in expansion mode for 300 years. “More”, not better, has been the driving idea behind so much. There was always more land to be taken, more crops which could be crown, more highways to build. Dominance through growth is the American way of life.
In Western Europe and Japan (and recently Korea), they’ve grown quite accustomed to the idea that increased quantity is largely a zero sum game. There’s no where to grow. More for some means less for others. Thus, quality has become the preference. Unfettered growth has visible negative consequences, so instead of growing “out” they’ve grown “up”.
Andrewon 28 Sep 09
You might like Paul Graham’s essay, “Taste for Makers.“
Stefanon 28 Sep 09
“Is it because people outside the U.S. tend to buy fewer items and so have higher expectations for those items?”
“Maybe Americans lost focus on aesthetics because we’re more interested in efficiency.”
And by the way, good design doesn’t mean only good aesthetics, it also means good functionality, so you can ditch that one, too.
Dougon 28 Sep 09
I’ve been wondering something similar, but about BMWs. The 73x and 74x were beautiful, but the 75x looks like your Honda picture above. I’m heart broken :( Can finally afford a BMW and they’re butt-ugly :(
Jorgon 28 Sep 09
Doug, you may have missunderstood BMW’s naming conventions. 7 is the series and the next two numbers roughly describe the displacement (740 used to have a 4.0L engine, now it’s—I think—a 3.0 Bi-Turbo with the same BHP) However: There’s no indication of the generation within those 3 digits. And I doubt I can actually tell a current series 730 apart from a current series 750 ;)
David Son 28 Sep 09
The short answer: yes, Americans have bad taste.
The long answer: this is a bit of a guess, of course, but when I think of nations or areas of the globe with “bad” taste, or “bad” design, I tend to think of BIG places.
Now I don’t wish to offend anyone (quite the opposite, I am just trying to make an observation). However, when you see pictures of “average” dwellings, vehicles, public buildings, clothing – to name just a few – as seen in the geographically BIG countries (USA, Russia, China, Australia, Brazil, Canada, etc.), you’ll see some of the most dismal and uninspiring sights…
Not necessarily because people in those countries, or cultures, are innately less caring or talented or knowledgeable in the area of taste…it’s simply much harder to be a large country, at least in some respects—there’s a reason why the best internet infrastructure (for example) happens to be found in smaller nations.
When you are dealing with a huge geographical area (as in the nations listed above), your focus tends to be first and foremost on “making things work”: ensuring that long-distance transport can really get you there (even if it’s 48 hours later), trying to get phone and electricity across thousands of miles, providing foodstuffs across a full continent…enormous infrastructure challenges that don’t leave a lot of time or resources (mental or fiscal) available for the development of “taste” and other “luxuries”. You first must provide at least a basic level of service to a vast number of people located over a vast area of land, and all with “limited” resources (even in the richest countries).
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it seems to me (even in photographs-I’ve only lived in America and Europe, so I can’t speak firsthand about other parts of the world, hence the use of photos)-that the more developed symphony orchestras (and certainly their audiences) are located in the relatively smaller nations; the more stylish candy bar packaging can be found in locales that still have a “local” flavor to the place (in opposition to America, where local means anywhere within a 500-mile radius); tasteful clothing and cars seem to come from relatively small European and Asian countries for the most part, places where there is less “pressure” or real need to go for the long haul (think functionality) and more “inducement” to design for personality (think style). I believe that this “style” for lack of a better term might come from smaller places’ sense of local individuality and local color/flavor. These smaller places haven’t had to face the homogenization that large places, by necessity, face in providing a workable infrastructure for their citizens.
Not to say that a huge place or a huge company can’t sometimes come up with something tasteful or beautiful, only that the “smaller” sense of “local” seems to be more fertile ground for the development of taste.
Anyway, just a theory…but it does strike me that taste does have some sort of inverse relationship to the size of influence of the predominant culture.
Travison 28 Sep 09
Visiting America as an outsider, what occurs to me is how faithful American design is to traditional form factors.
Standouts for me were vacuum cleaners and fire-engines (as some obscure examples, granted).
An objective evaluation of the function and ergonomics of these objects hasn’t been able to evolve further than a subjective adherence their traditional form.
I think American automotive design suffers similarly.
Filon 29 Sep 09
I’m an American expat living in Japan and having been here for a few years, I can and will say when I look back that Americans do tend to have”bad” taste in design. However, that being said, the argument that we look at utilitarian aspects of products is true IMHO.
For example, even though they may not be up to par by today’s environmental standards, cars built specifically for the American market are very efficient in terms of moving things/people around. If you have only been to the big cities in the US, you just wouldn’t understand. I am from the sticks, and a large vehicle, even if its inefficient in terms of energy, is a requirement. You have to think about it in terms of the country to really understand.
Now in Japan for example, its a tiny country. Everything is efficient here b/c the Japanese are very environmentally conscious. Add in that their designs are spectacular to boot you would think the country is a paradise. However, not EVERYTHING is beautiful or well designed. For example, being from the states where our power grid is built beneath the ground, seeing power lines ALL over the place is disgusting to me. But then I have to think about it in terms of Japan. They have tons of earthquakes, so building a power grid beneath the ground is impossible.
Just my two cents.
Isaakon 29 Sep 09
I must say America has by far and away the ugliest cars in the world… without question.
The fact that you redesign European and Asian cars to look uglier is the biggest sin of all…. I have no idea who is charge of marketing at GM, Ford etc. but I was secretly glad when they said they would be closing their doors… and now only hope that this kick in the backside might be what they need to get back on top of their game!!
P.S. I don’t believe here in Australia our cars are that much better :P
Michaelon 29 Sep 09
I think “Anonymous Coward” nailed it. The examples you provide of decently designed cars aren’t really any better designed than the Crosstour that you think is ugly. Frankly, I think that the cars made by American manufacturers are, on the whole, somewhat more appealing than those from other car companies (this is of the cars that are available in the states). It doesn’t mean that I have better taste than you, just that I have different taste. I know that designers sometimes like to maintain that good vs. bad design is always objective, but we have to admit that sometimes it can be (and this is one of those occasions).
Brandon Fergusonon 29 Sep 09
I don’t think it’s so much as as “bad taste” as pragmatism plus detractors having a confirmation bias.
When you speak of big US Corporate design a lot of it is research fueled. Focus groups, surveys, testing etc. A lot of “horrible design” is actually extremely effective in tests (pop unders, and ads that look like OS dialogs for instance do great). All of Google’s designs are data driven, Walmart is a master of store layout for driving sales, etc. These decisions make money very well, but they’re often not pretty to look at. It’s what works not what’s pretty. That said, I think we’re finally getting back to the idea that “design” is a feature that works and also makes money so maybe this will change in the near future.
As for the confirmation bias – there is a ton of great design happening in the states. As the OP said it’s just trendy to say otherwise. American Car companies do have some fantastic design (even if it it doesn’t fit your personal preference) – to me they just don’t know when to say when and stop at the great. However! This isn’t just an American problem, we just happen to see a lot of foreign car makers bests. A lot of car makers make crap and meh looking cars – we just get to see all of the US Gaffs along with their strokes of brilliance. (I’ve long said that Chrysler was a niche car maker who just didn’t know it. A lot of revolutionary/brilliant designs that are immediately followed with shovelware of the worst kind)
pierreon 29 Sep 09
Excellent post, and some very good answers. From my observations and individual experience (I’m a french canadian currently living in asia, lived in europe and traveled to US for work quite a lot), it is simply because americans think differently and have different set of priorities (and in this i could include 90% of canada yes)
The american way is all about work, consumerism and money. not that there is anything wrong with that, but it affects everything: food, cars, houses, fashion….and yes design. it has to be efficient, practical, cheap, quickly consumed….
just one example: in continental europe, people try to take a decent lunch break and eat decent food. go for a walk, sit down, eat, have a nice coffee adter. in asia same thing. in USA and parts of Canada, it’s all about eating fast food and starbucks at your desk and reading your emails during lunch…who cares about the “esthetic” of the food, it has to be consumed fast and be cheap. this cultural trait is just one example, but overall culture has an impact on everything else, and yes it means overall design is not that important in day to day life.
hope it makes sense. my 3 cents
Gregor J. Rothfusson 29 Sep 09
Most Americans live in a wasteland of strip malls, pawn shops and cul de sacs. Having a dulled perception and appreciation for form is a survival trait.
Björn Brändewallon 29 Sep 09
I think Americans aren’t hungry enough anymore. We in the West call ourselves the developED countries, and that’s a shame, because that implies stagnation—that we’ve reached road’s end.
Meanwhile the “developING” countries in the East are very hungry to reach our living standards, and that gives them the edge. (And as a European I think Europe has a slight edge over America, although we’re way behind Asia.)
That’s why the world’s tallest buildings aren’t built in the U.S. anymore. The developing countries still have dreams, but we in the West have pretty much stopped dreaming.
Patrick Ryanon 29 Sep 09
My wife and I run a wholesale and retail business importing American products to Germany.
Our wholesale business focuses on food and our customers generally complement us on the packaging of the products we offer. Many also generally concede that American companies are superior in presenting their food products.
I do prefer in general (French cars are not my thing) that the cars over here look better than in the US.
I guess it depends on the area or industry you are looking at.
Jorge Galindoon 29 Sep 09
Yes, you do. Specially in Florida.
Gavinon 29 Sep 09
I live in the Philippines, Matt, and I would give my left nut to see the people in this country raise their design standards to even half that of the ‘bad’ US standard. It’s a diverse world, even on the large scale. We have great design in the US, and we have great design in Asia. But sometimes it just ain’t where you’re looking.
David Ditzleron 29 Sep 09
I think some people might confuse efficiency with convenience.
I think we in America design for convenience.
The Oscar Meyer Lunchables is not efficiency in my book that is convenience.
Putting in larger cup holders in cars, putting coffee in little packets that you load into a machine to make one cup and then throw out. Selling water in small bottles. Selling 24 rolls of TP in one package. From the best to the worst I think convenience is a huge driving force in America.
Apple does some things that are efficient, simple, elegant and stand out because of their great industrial design. They are also very convenient too. I think other companies just focus on convenience and use short cuts to get their “solution” and as a whole aesthetics, as well as other aspects get tossed aside for convenience.
Benjyon 29 Sep 09
I’m a huge car buff and designer, so I always notice cars when traveling. Even in Mexico, they get nicely designed cars we don’t have here north of the border. Some are brands we don’t see at all - Alfa Romeo, Renault, etc. - but others are products from GM, VW, Nissan, etc. that we just don’t get here.
On the flipside, I can’t even count the number of times I see vehicles on the road here and question how it ever got the green light because it’s so ugly, or the proportions are off, etc. Pontiac was the biggest offender with the Aztek—which probably played a role in the brand’s ultimate demise. But other vehicles like this Honda, the BMW X6 (I thought they were better than that!), the Jeep Compass are just awful. Most of these seem to try to be something for everybody… brand managers, marketers, designers need to just pick a segment they want to create a vehicle for and make the best vehicle for those people instead of trying to make something that’ll appeal to everybody. They end up appealing to nobody.
zhauson 29 Sep 09
I think there is more competition in the states, and for that reason, pragmatism (including cost) has trumped beauty. And marketing (ie, shamwow) is not the same as functionality – we’re just really, really good at sales.
apple, thankfully, is showing this culture that design can be pragmatic, too (not just pretty). the ongoing challenge is paying for it – which is counter to our thirst for low-cost items (and the competitive marketplace).
merleon 29 Sep 09
I think you are right on Pierre. We have a maniacal work culture in this country. The whole world benefits from it (and I suppose suffers for it), but we’re immersed in it. I drive a Honda Accord. Maybe the styling is bland. It’s a 5-speed to keep it a little interesting but I want my reliability above all.
Michelle O'Haganon 29 Sep 09
Are Americans more pragmatic? Yes. Utilitarian? Yes. More competitive? Yes.
But there’s something else that’s more than a little disturbing.
Many Americans (not all) pursue and enjoy the lowest-common-denominator aesthetic BECAUSE it seems, um, patriotic. They seem to take pride in the fact that they take no pride in the appearance of anything because that would just be too snooty and intellectual.
I’m reminded of an episode of “Family Guy” that I saw last night. The one in which Peter decides to become a “redneck” after watching a certain comedy tour.Oh well. This won’t change any time soon.
Adamon 29 Sep 09
All due respect, with regards to Honda’s Japanese cars, either quoted party doesn’t know what they’re talking about or they are leaving out the majority of Japan only Hondas to make a point.
Have you actually seen the Hobio, Partner, Elysion, Vamos, etc.?
It’s funny to ask if American’s have bad taste while so many of them are railing about how ugly the Crosstour is when you think it’s ugly too. Doesn’t that mean they have good taste?
Frankly, comments I’ve been reading regarding this car seem to be coming from people that don’t know auto design from a hole in the ground.
Aside from that the Fit that you’ve shown as an example is not of the current model, as is Ridgeline example which is also significantly modified.
Lee Shepstoneon 29 Sep 09
For everyone citing Apple as the great example of American design, their head of design (Jon Ive) is British and their design studio is full of Europeans. It is just that Steve Jobs happens to appreciate great design when he sees it, and one of the first things he did was promote Ive to design head when he rejoined apple after seeing his work.
It is pretty hard to poinpoint the reason for the design and aesthetic gap in the US. But one thing I have noticed that is markedly different between the US and Europe is the number of design schools, and the number of design courses at regular colleges. Europe seems to have far more of these, and it seems to be a much more common vocation…whether that be graphic design, industrial, interior etc. And there seem to be alot more design firms per capita as well.
It seems to be a virtuous cycle, European society appreciates aesthetic value, and therefore numerous schools and design shops exist to serve that market…begetting yet a greater pool of design skills and talent. There is even a reality show airing on TV right now about design, with Phillipe Starck trying to coax a bunch of design students to produce great work in his hilarious style.
John Hardyon 30 Sep 09
Here is your answer: http://www.peopleofwalmart.com/ these consumers are a pretty demanding lot.
Philip Kingon 30 Sep 09
Would the physical size of a the country come into play? What I mean is taste very from one part of the country to another. To build a car that someone in California and someone in Iowa would both like would be difficult. There needs and wants and cultural norms are probably different enough to make wants and desires different.
I am in upstate New York when looking for cars I want something large enough to fit all six of us and can handle the brutal winters. (Nothing like ripping a door handle off your car in the dead of winter.) I like boxy and big its more practical, you know go to the grandparents need room for the family and all the junk you bring then you need more room for the junk your parents give the kids.
Christopher Cashellon 30 Sep 09
I think a lot of people are seriously oversimplifying this and leaving out a lot of very important considerations.
For example, car design, including appearance, is going to be heavily influenced by a range of different factors. In Europe, gasoline is very expensive compared to the US. That makes larger cars, SUVs, and less fuel efficient “muscle” cars a lot less practical. Because gas is more expensive, European cars tend to be a lot smaller, lighter, and more fuel efficient. That lends itself to a particular design style. In the US, gas is cheap, and the country is large. Lots of people regularly drive long distances that are equivalent to crossing multiple European countries. Cars are larger, and comfort is a bigger potential play.
I think this has a lot less to do with “good taste” and “bad taste” and a lot more to do with individual tastes being influenced by outside factors. Take an American and put them in Europe, and they’re going to buy a European style car. Take a European and put them in America, and they’re likely to buy an American style car.
Personally, I think a lot of American cars are incredibly ugly. I also think a lot of European cars are hideous, and a lot of Japanese cars are lacking in good aesthetics. I also think there’s good looking cars from each region.
Interesting too, how you hold up early American cars as being gorgeous. You do know that a great many Americans love classic cars, and think they’re beautiful, right? In fact, a number of recent American cars have had their appearances changed, some significantly, to include similarities to those classic cars. Considering their bad taste, though, as you pointed out repeatedly, I can’t quite figure out why they’d do that.
To throw another wrench in your “theories”, I think the Fit and the Pilot are both god-awful ugly, while I think the S2000 and the Crosstour are good looking cars. But wait, how does that work? I partially agree with you, and I partially disagree with you. Does that mean I have bad taste? Or good and bad taste?
Or maybe it just means that this whole post on ‘taste’ was silly and meaningless, and that individual taste can vary hugely across any population. I could go on with counterpoints beyond the car argument, but I’ve already wasted more time on this than I can justify.
Props for insulting a lot of people for not sharing your opinions, though. The way you backed it up with anecdotes and generalizations was a particularly nice touch.
Martialon 30 Sep 09
There is no monolithic “rest of the world” or “Europe” just as there is no “United States”. I could easily walk through Rome or Florence and point to a dozen things in ten minutes that you would rather pluck your eyes out than have seen. Many Parisians may dress well, but Berliners or Norwegians not so much. Sarajevo has a certain old world (if bullet-ridden) charm in its center, but Tuzla (just up the road and in the same tiny country) is an ugly industrial city that has been an ugly industrial city for over five hundred years. There was some astonishingly good design in the Soviet Union and it never made a dent in the aesthetic of most of that country’s products.
There is history and location and happenstance and genius behind design, sure. What there is not is some “cultural character” where some societies have “good” taste and other have “bad”. I’ve been all over the world, developed and developing. There is ugly and lazy everywhere. Everywhere. There is also beauty, thank god.
krrhon 30 Sep 09
The market for cars in America is many times larger than the market for cars in other countries or parts of the world. Not all American’s have bad taste, but when you design for a larger pool of people things that appeal to smaller subsets of these groups will have to be worked out so that a lowest common denominator is developed.
Also, other countries also do much worse at designing consumer electronics like mp3 players and phones? Apple is the obvious example, but the motorola RAZR at the time was also far nicer to hold and look at than most other european and asian phones at the time.
Jromeon 30 Sep 09
I heard somewhere that Chrysler is working to Americanify some Fiat models to bring to the States. If they just left them alone and sold them as Euro models in the US, I’d buy two. Euro can sell…look what happened to the home espresso market.
johnon 01 Oct 09
I think its funny that people keep bringing up European designs for cars. Thing is, we have them in the states but you never see them, they are always at the mechanics.
Fords too, and hummers… hummers are built like shit.
IME Japanese cars out last anything. I had a 87 Toyota 4-Runner that was retired when it had 378,000 miles. Never once was the transmission touched, the motor was rebuilt once.
S. Rudersdorfon 01 Oct 09
Design reflects mentalities. Even the mentioned european design is not homegenous. There´s a huge difference between northern and southern Italy. British people consider german and swiss design to be continental and so on.
With regard to cars it seems familiar. I´ve heard an attempt to explain why Americans love huge cars. According to that it´s because the ownership of land/property is very important and a car for Americans is more like a house than it might be for european people (in germany people rather rent a house than buy it, in the UK and US it´s vice versa).
Is it that for Americans their car is their castle? Surely such an understanding of what a car actually is would influence the design.
Diversity in design says a lot about people´s mentalities. I love to explore these and don´t think their´s such thing as bad taste.
andrewon 01 Oct 09
I’m not sure Americans crave bad design as much as we tolerate it.
Returning to the original example of Honda’s cars, you’ll see that Civics and Fits have been literally flying off of the lots for the past two years, thanks to their efficiency, economy, and “smart” looks.
Given the choice, Americans will generally choose the better-designed product, and do have an appreciation for European design sensibilities wherever they are available and reasonably affordable. However, we’re rarely given the choice—there are hordes of Americans begging Ford to sell their European lineup in the US, while the company languishes attempting to sell its huge, ugly American-oriented models.
UI/web design seems to be an entirely different arena. AFAIK, both Apple and Microsoft base their UI teams out of the US, while the pioneers (ie. PARC) were also based in the US. Additionally, US-based websites have always seemed to be more information-rich, and easy to navigate than their European or Asian counterparts (without sacrificing aesthetics)
nickon 04 Oct 09
aesthetics are not something to be admired. while they are a nice touch, if you are sacrificing form for beauty then something is amiss. the fact that american’s care less about looks and more about function is a compliment.
Sliceon 04 Oct 09
The people of the USA are not be worried about its looks, they want it to last. For some reason, we just figured out the GMC cars break down more than drive. This car being Honda will probably fly off the lots.
Me, I love my ugly Volvo 240 wagon with 240k and still doesn’t leak oil.
This discussion is closed.