Thoughts on Style

· November 6th

Not long ago, I got an e-mail from a young design student asking about style, a word that is both elusive and ubiquitous enough to define the careers of countless designers, writers, musicians and filmmakers. In the student’s message, he especially was curious if I thought maintaining a personal “look & feel” was a necessary consideration for one to do truly good work. He mentioned his professors’ insistence that working repeatedly within a singular approach ultimately limits the potential of your work—a point with which I agreed.

 What I also told him, though, was to be cautious not to narrow his definition of style to exclusively include “how things look.” It’s easy to equate the two, and often we do, but in the end, the latter is really a very small part of the former. Style may certainly refer to the way your work looks, but, more importantly, it comprises your approach, and the ideas and larger messages you want your body of work to explore.

I often hear designers say things like “my stuff is all about vintage,” or “my style is minimalism.” And while there’s obviously no harm in describing your work that way, those traits are ultimately just expressions—the paint on the outside of the car. Underneath is a primer and sheetmetal and hoses and bolts and, at the very center, a monster of an engine growling under the hood. The engine’s where the voice is. If someone told you they drove a red car, you’d have discerned next to nothing about the vehicle. But if someone told you they drive a car with a bored-out V8 hemi that regularly smokes Maseratis off the line, you’d think, “Nice—I’ll bet it’s red, isn’t it?” It just makes sense. Content dictates appearance. Not to mention that you’re impressed as hell, and you suddenly feel like you know something a little more about the driver. You know what to expect in the future, whether you’re in the garage, on the street or at the track.

Style boils down similarly. There’s a line from one of my favorite movies, Thank You For Smoking, where Aaron Eckhart is explaining to his son that, “If your job is to be right, then you’re never wrong.” If you ground your visual approach in content and ideas, rather than in looks, then the aesthetic qualities will always match up, will always feel right. Pollock didn’t scatter paint across the canvas because he wanted something that looked like he’d scattered paint across the canvas; he wanted to record the gesture of his hand. That’s it. Scattering paint across a canvas just happened to be a pretty effective way of doing it. I think a principal challenge for all designers is tantamount to one Pollock surely faced: how can we best express what we want to, and is there a right way? Had he simply tied a paintbrush to a string, hung it from his belt and danced around his house, the Met would have a very empty wing. We run up against similar obstacles every day. The error on our part lies in letting the fear of a vacant Inbox or an empty portfolio page drive us to create without meaning, to monotonize our work with the ease of of repetition, superficiality, or replication.

The next time you’re faced with asking yourself what your brand or app or painting or thing should look like, just take a step back. Why are you wearing what you’re wearing? Why boots, not flip flops? Why the necklace? Why the hat? It’s all the same thing. What does your brand watch on TV? What does your app wear on a date? What does your painting listen to at the gym? What does your thing want to be?

You’ll have the answer in no time.