Elizabeth Goodspeed on the importance of taste – and how to acquire it

As templates, tutorials and tools become ubiquitous, technical skills are more accessible than ever. It’s no longer enough to be able to simply draw or design. Now, our US editor-at-large argues, you need to be able to select from the vast sea of possibilities.

Most AI images look like shit. AI “artists” are quick to lecture me that generative tools are improving every day and what they spit out won’t always look this way – I think that’s beside the point. What makes AI imagery so lousy isn’t the technology itself, but the cliché and superficial creative ambitions of those who use it. A video of a cyber-punk jellyfish or a collie in sunglasses on a skateboard generated by Open AI’s new video-to-text model Sora aren’t bad because the animals in them look unrealistic; they’re bad because they’re mind-numbingly stupid. AI image generation is essentially a truncated exercise in taste; a product of knowing which inputs and keywords to feed the image-mashup machine, and the eye to identify which outputs contain any semblance of artistry. All that is to say: AI itself can’t generate good taste for you.

Taste has been coming up a lot in the design world recently – both the lack of it and the need for it. As templated tools, the proliferation of AI and the ubiquity of design tutorials make technical skills more accessible than ever, it’s simply not enough to be able to draw or design anymore. Now you need to have taste. Taste is what enables designers to navigate the vast sea of possibilities that technology and global connectivity afford, and to then select and combine these elements in ways that, ideally, result in interesting, unique work.

Like many writers before me, I tend to lean on vague hand-waving when the need to define taste, or rather, good taste, arises. A common trope is to use the phrase US Supreme Court justice Stewart famously gave to describe obscenity, a similarly hard-to-describe bedfellow of taste, in 1964: “I know it when I see it.” In design, good taste can be knowing what old typeface to bring back, which photographer to work with or when to stop using a certain popular colour. In other words, it’s knowing when to lean into, or out of, a trend – an especially apt detail when you consider that mass adoption of an aesthetic tends to result in it losing value (see: chic sans serif becoming tasteless blanding). When taste is deployed effectively, it operates like good branding: an intangible melding of factors that make one thing cooler, better or more marketable than its counterpart.

Good taste can seem to emerge naturally, either as a product of a cultured education or innate coolness. In practice, it’s rarely present by accident. Taste takes work. Though good taste is often expressed through a single output (say, interior design or illustration), it’s typically shaped by exposure to a variety of diverse inputs. A common theme heard amongst iconic, tasteful creatives is how often they look outside their own field for inspiration: the architect inspired by nature, the clothing designer inspired by anime, the illustrator inspired by medieval tapestries.

As a self-described Casual Archivist, looking at things outside contemporary graphic design is certainly a large part of how I’ve developed my own sense of taste – though my drive to seek out wide-reaching design inspiration was admittedly as much a product of curiosity as it was a result of insecurity. Collecting pieces of design history felt like an ethical way to bootstrap my taste level while I was still figuring out my own point of view; if this colour palette worked for Tadanori Yokoo, it would work for me too. But as I looked at more old stuff, I realised I didn’t actually like all of it. I started to tease out what spoke to me personally and what was simply old. I started going down particular archival rabbit holes (like vintage cookbooks or French basketball magazines) simply because I wanted to learn more about them, not because I needed a historic reference to validate what colour palette to use. Without meaning to, I’d slowly stumbled across my own taste.

Anyone who follows me online might know that I’m a power user of are.na, a sort of indie, non-algorithmic version of Pinterest described by its founders as “a social network and creative research platform”. I was introduced to the site almost ten years ago by a friend with great taste (an estuary researcher, not a designer) who always seems to know about these sorts of things before anyone else. I’m naturally inclined towards pattern spotting, and soon began to use the site as a kind of mind-map to track the design and art direction trends I was enjoying. I love the open-source ethos of the platform, and admittedly find a deep, borderline manic, satisfaction in cataloging content there. My profile became a reflection of my interests and my taste, all neatly packaged into precise and easily searchable folders. But, six years and 20,000 blocks in, it increasingly feels like I’m collecting things out of habit, an obsessive need for completion, or as a kind of public service – not because I feel any special draw towards the individual pieces I’m saving. In my quest to share my taste, I fear I may be losing track of it.

I suspect the rise of inspiration-sharing platforms might be making me, and everyone else on the collaborative internet, more focused on publicising our taste rather than feeding it. It’s easier to go viral on Twitter (err, X) by posting “vintage design inspiration” than it is by posting your own work. New sites like PI.FYI, a social network from the makers of trendy recommendation newsletter Perfectly Imperfect, only exacerbate the issue further. On PI.FYI, users can suggest everything from books to states of mind, demonstrating a carefully measured (nay, perfectly imperfect) sense of camp taste in the process. Tyler Bainbridge, one of the site’s editors, said that “everyone wants to feel like their taste is important.” But if everyone is a tastemaker, is anyone? Or have we simply manifested a cult of curation where the appearance of having good taste is an end in itself?

The fear of developing “bad” taste, or taste that diverges from the mainstream, can paralyse creatives, stifling their creative growth and leading them to try to borrow or buy taste through bootcamps, curated inspiration documents or sheer are.na-driven osmosis. While it’s probably one of the corniest things I’ll ever write in this column, I’ve come to believe that developing taste is not so unlike going to therapy; it’s an inefficient, time-consuming process that mostly entails looking inward and identifying whatever already moves you. It’s the product of devouring ideas, images and pieces of culture not because someone you respect likes them, but because you simply can’t look away. Developing taste is an exercise in vulnerability: it requires you to trust your instincts and preferences, even when they don’t align with current trends or the tastes of your peers. Because while having taste is cool, taste itself reflects a certain type of uncool earnestness – a commitment to one’s own obsessions and quirks. Find your taste; everyone else will catch up eventually. Though, maybe not AI.

Elizabeth writes a regular column for It’s Nice That from her base on the East Coast of the US. Check back in every couple of weeks to read her latest thoughts on design trends and hot topics from the creative world.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Goodspeed

Elizabeth Goodspeed is It’s Nice That’s US editor-at-large, as well as an independent designer, art director, educator and writer. Working between New York and Providence, she's a devoted generalist, but specialises in idea-driven and historically inspired projects. She’s passionate about lesser-known design history, and regularly researches and writes about various archive and trend-oriented topics. She also publishes Casual Archivist, a design history focused newsletter.

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