At first, it sounds crass-the notion that style is as important as, or even more important, than substance. It's nothing we haven't guessed, but it just confirms the world is going to hell in a handbasket. At least that's what you'd think, until you start reading Virginia Postrel'sThe Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture & Consciousness (HarperCollins). The book suggests that a business boasting about its product or service's flash and dazzle over its practical uses may be a natural, and even positive, progression. We caught up with Postrel, who writes an economic column for The New York Times and a column and blog for D magazine, the city magazine for Dallas/Fort Worth (to read her blog, visit www.frontburner.dmagazine.com).
It seems you're not saying style is more important than substance-just that it's important and sometimes more important.
Virginia Postrel: I'm not saying it's more important than substance-but [style is present] in more aspects of life, particularly in commercial life. Competition has pushed functional quality so high, and in many cases, prices so low, the question becomes: How do you differentiate one service from another? That's where style comes in. Style is a form of substance. It gives us pleasure, helps us express our identity and is a source of our meaning. Think of your computer. For the majority, more power is no longer an issue. So the question becomes, Will I enjoy using it? Will I feel happy when I'm looking at it? Will my computer say something about my identity?
So you're suggesting it isn't competition that's fueling the trend toward style over substance, but that it's a human need?
Postrel: It's a little of both. You wouldn't compete to have a product or service with the most style if people didn't value it. Aesthetics is a source of pleasure for biological reasons and a form of self-expression. That's why, for example, when the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, the first thing men started doing was shave off or reshape their beards. It allowed them to define themselves.
So what can entrepreneurs learn from all this?
Postrel: Some entrepreneurs feel that being practical means ignoring style, but in fact, it means giving the market what it wants. In the final chapter, I retell a story that appeared in the The Wall Street Journal of a restaurant owner whose business went under due to competitive pressures, and it was because he kept making his food better but didn't pay attention to his environment. The restaurant was noisy and didn't have character. If you ignore what people want in favor of what you want, you won't be successful. Because we've been taught that aesthetics are frivolous, some entrepreneurs don't pay attention to that, and they live to regret it.