Dynamist Blog


Retailing guru Paco Underhill reviews The Substance of Style in the WSJ (subscription required), not surprisingly emphasizing the retailing/marketing angles more than the intellectual debates:

Marketing and advertising find themselves in a 21st-century bar fight where 60% to 70% of what we buy is discretionary. At the grocery store, at Wal-Mart and at the shopping mall, roughly two-thirds of what we purchase we had no intention of buying when we walked in the door. The bar fight has been made even more fierce by an aging population base that is still recovering from the shopping binge of the 1990s and the revolution in engineering and distribution that have indeed driven the price of many goods down while improving their durability.

The question that merchants and marketers are asking, then, is where to find leverage -- how to get customers to notice, consider and trade-up to a higher-price product. There is a convergence of a global visual language that is evolving faster than the spoken or written word and an affluent, aging, cynical, middle class. The result? What Ms. Postrel argues for -- the increasing importance of design in all its manifestations: from material and form to the graphics of digital media, broadcast and print....

A company in Taiwan makes the flat screens and the guts of Apple's computers, but the design of its iMac, Ms. Postrel writes, "turns the personal computer from a utilitarian, putty-colored box into curvy, translucent eye candy -- blueberry, strawberry, tangerine, grape." A tube of lipstick costs pennies to make but somehow ends up costing us $17 at Sephora. That is all modern magic.

Ms. Postrel makes a persuasive and well-researched case for the value of such magic. Far from being at odds with "substance," as various critics have argued, it has a meaning all its own.

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