The aspirational economy

Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal relates this interesting lesson in the importance of design in “For Certain Consumers Of High Tech, Function Isn’t Always Enough”

With the home-improvement season in high gear in the neighborhood, I decided to replace a few of the windows in my house and called on a nearby dealer who makes simple custom ones in his own shop.
His windows were clearly well-made and would last for decades — the two points that were the beginning and end of his sales pitch. While entirely comfortable discussing his old-fashioned craftsmanship, the window maker seemed bewildered and a little impatient with the finicky style-oriented questions I started asking. Are there different sorts of trim detailing available? How many kinds of knobs do you offer? What sort of options for frosted glass are there?
It was as if I was talking about a different product completely, which in a way I was. He was selling windows; I was buying a design statement. He was offering something entirely functional and pragmatic; I was looking for something aspirational.
This functional vs. aspirational dichotomy is an instructive, possibly even amusing, way of divying up the technology industry — along with many others.

Amusing — possibly; instructive — definitely. Never underestimate the role of the aspirational – or, maybe a better word is “inspirational.” In the mass production era, the common belief was that engineering reigned and functionality ruled. But was never really the case. Aspirational/inspirational was always sitting next to functionality. Case in point: art deco and the “modern” design of functional things like railroad locomotives (the 20th Century Limited).
I’m somewhat surprised that Mr. Gomes’ window maker didn’t understand this. Every craftsman I have ever dealt with is a master of the inspirational as well as the functional. And anyone who as even glanced at one of the innumerable home decorating magazines knows that windows are a fashion statement.
The aspirational/inspirational has also long been part of the technology culture, as he points out:

Apple Computer, of course, is often mentioned as the ultimate aspirational technology company. It isn’t simply that the iPod or the PowerBook is “well-designed”; it is that Apple realizes the extent to which the people buying its products are making a statement about their good taste.
Even if a Dell Windows machine does all the same things — and is less expensive and faster to boot — it still doesn’t matter, as a walking tour through any tony design studio will tell you.

But I would argue that this over simplifies the case. Designers chose the Apple long ago because it was functionally better for graphics. And the Dell machines are not ascetically unattractive. (In the interest of full disclosure – I am writing this on a Dell Windows machine).
Rather than divide products on the aspirational versus functional line, I think the winners will be those who appeal to both (as the headline of the Gomes article implies). We can’t forsake functional for merely decorative; but nor need we settle for boring. In many ways, the I-Cubed Economy is the aspirational economy as well.

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