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On Developing Taste

On Developing Taste

In the summer of 2015, I decided to learn photography. I didn’t know about lighting or composition or exposure. I didn’t even know what kind of photos I wanted to take. I took random snapshots of bridges, of buildings, of random knick-knacks in my house. There was no learning, just me pressing the shutter button.

I hadn’t yet developed any taste.

A boring snapshot Here’s a boring photo of a boring building. 2015.

Why develop taste

First, good taste drives us to make better things.

Radio host Ira Glass has this great bit on ’doing the work’. Listen to the whole thing (2 min).

"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."

If we want to get better, we need something to compare our results to. We need a direction to work towards. Taste gives us that direction.

Second, we can’t do anything innovative in the field if we don’t know what’s out there. I took random photos because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. This doesn’t mean keeping up with the latest trends. It means learning from the classics, learning the fundamentals. Once we’ve got a solid grasp of the field, then we can push the boundaries [1].

Finally, the process of developing taste shows us what we enjoy and what we don’t.

Where to Develop Taste

The obvious place to develop taste is any kind of creative field: photography, painting, writing. We don’t often think this way, but it’s possible to develop taste in non-creative fields too:

  • Career
    9-5 job or freelancer? Huge corporation or basement startup?
  • Living Situation
    American suburb or Asian metropolis? House with roommates or tiny studio?
  • Science
    What big questions are still being asked? What big questions have been mostly answered? What theories are being developed?
  • Exercise
    Weightlifting? Crossfit? Couch potato? Ultra Marathons?
  • Information
    What kind of books/blogs/newspapers do you read? How do you know it’s trustworthy?

How to Develop Taste

Seek the Fundamentals First

Until you learn the fundamentals, flailing about with random tactics is a slow way to proceed. In the visual arts, fundamentals like composition, lighting, and color theory are the building blocks of every great painting, photograph, or design. In physics, it’s mechanics, electrostatics, waves, thermodynamics. If you’re unsure of what the fundamentals are, try to find a guide online [2], or look at a college degree syllabus.

For various topics, I collect resource lists and post them on this site. I want to give the reader a path towards picking up the fundamentals.

Find Creators and Curators, avoid Hucksters

In any field there are:

  • Creators: Those who make things, and push the field in new directions.
  • Curators: Those who comb the field and collect the best to share.
  • Masses: Those who consume the fruits of the field.
  • Hucksters [3]: Those who copy the creators, add nothing new, and exploit the masses for profit.

The photography world is full of ’experts’ with bad portfolios, the fitness world full of ’experts’ who spend more time on forums than in the gym/lab. Avoid hucksters, and don’t become one yourself.

All of this requires a meta-level of taste in information. You and I can spot a ’Nigerian Prince’ email scam from a mile away. People unfamiliar with technology don’t have any taste in scams, so they fall for them. More on this in a later post.

Risks of Taste Development

Developing taste is not without its risks.

Risk 1: Become Elitist

Don’t let an interest in dressing better turn into disdain for those plebians who don’t wear designer clothes.

Risk 2: Waste Time and Money Chasing Asymptotic Results

Head-fi.org is a forum for audiophiles. Their unofficial welcome message:

"Welcome to Head-Fi. Sorry about your wallet."

I’ve spent untold hours reading head-fi, looking for my next purchase. I’ve spent thousands of dollars chasing the ultimate headphone/amplifier combination. But past a certain point diminishing returns kicks in: my next dollar won’t go as far as my first. Can I tell the difference between a $2000 setup and a $500 setup? Yes, but at that point I’m no longer able to enjoy the music, it’s just a discernment exercise.

Unless you’re trying to be #1, don’t chase asymptotic results.

Risk 3: Chasing Taste to Avoid Creating

At some point we need to use our taste to create. Developing taste can feel productive, even while it’s robbing us of creative hours. And developing taste is easy compared to creating. Our brains want to take the easy route. If I browse Instagram for an hour, I feel like I’ve done something to improve my photography. In reality, I would’ve been better off photographing for 50 minutes, and maybe Instagramming for 10 minutes.


Let’s finish this post by returning to Ira Glass:

"...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 awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through."

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[1]: Steal like an artist

[2]: Examples of great guides to fundamentals:

[3]: Don’t Be a Huckster
See also: Batesian Mimicry: Why Copycats are Successful

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