The People Don't Know What They Want

The People Don’t Know What They Want: Art & Design

Apple, especially late co-founder Steve Jobs, has often been criticized and mocked for approaching products with the mindset that they know what is best for consumers and what consumers really want. Whether it was creating a phone without buttons, removing the headphone jack,  or possibly removing the charging port altogether, apple has pushed consumers in a way that says, “we know what you really want, and trust us, we are right in the end.” Instead of maintaining clunky technology or being afraid to push forward, Apple pushes the consumer by dropping old tech in favor of new advances, even if people are not quite ready to let the old tech go. Each time Apple does this it creates controversy and anger in the consumer base, but soon enough everyone adapts and moves forward with Apple, including their competition.
It appears that Apple may be correct. The trite line in the world of business is that the customer is always right. Apple certainly doesn’t buy into this mindset, and the world of technology is not the only space where people don’t know what they want. Michael Tisserand demonstrates this by quoting George Herriman in his biography of Herriman, Krazy. Herriman was interviewed in the late 1920’s by a journalist named Mary Landenberger. The quote from Herriman that Tisserand includes in his book is from Landenberger and reads, “The people don’t know what they want. And if they get an entirely new taste of something that’s good, they’ll want it until they find something better. But we’ve got to give them the initial taste before they start clamoring for more.”
Herriman shows that the Apple mindset was mirrored by cartoonists in the 1920’s. Art styles and fads change and are influenced by many social and cultural factors. People don’t always understand what they like and why, and according to Herriman, it is in some ways up to the artist to show people what they want. I’m sure that Jobs would have thought of himself as an artists, and the way he designed and styled his company’s products certainly fits with the mindset that Herriman, a cartoon artist, expressed.
In television shows and popular media and culture today we still see echoes from creatives of the Herriman and Jobs point of view. The idea that people don’t know what they want is easy to mock and ridicule, but it often turns out to be correct. Companies, artists, and movie studios who buck trends and give people something they didn’t know that they wanted can change the course of events and the form and function of art.
Crass Art

Crass Art

Tyler Cowen recently interviewed Dana Gioia for his podcast, Conversations with Tyler. Gioia is a noted poet and writer and was once the Poet Laureate for California. In the podcast, Cowen asked Gioia an interesting question and received a response from Gioia that I can’t stop thinking about:
“Cowen: Is rap music simply the new poetry? It’s very popular. It is poetic in some broader notion of the term.
GIOIA: Rap, hip hop without any question is poetry. It is rhythmically structured words moving through time. … if I go back to 1975 when I was leaving Harvard, I was told by the world experts in poetry that rhyme and meter were dead, narrative was dead in poetry. Poetry would become ever more complex, which meant that it could only appeal to an elite audience … what the intellectuals in the United States did was we took poetry away from common people.
We took rhyme away, we took narrative away, we took the ballad away, and the common people reinvented it.
This passage is fascinating because it looks at rap music, something that is often hated for its misogyny, drug/sex culture, and general shallowness and appreciates it as a true art form. Gioia’s answer takes our distinction between high culture and low culture, what we consider fine art and crass art, and turns it upside down. Gioia says that poetry was deemed too complex for simple people and that it was taken away from them, only to be reinvented in pop culture through rap music.
Since listening to this podcast I have thought a lot about popular culture and high culture. I always feel a temptation to engage with fine art and to look down my nose at what we generally consider crass art, but at the same time I often find a great pull and fondness toward that crass art. I enjoy Marvel movies, I find myself reflected in the characters of the Harry Potter books, and when I workout I like to listen to rap music or even trendy K-Pop with nonsensical and often ironic lyrics.
What Gioia noted about rap music, and what I have felt with regard to popular mega-IPs and trendy music, has been seen with different artforms and media in human history. In the 1920’s, writes Michael Tisserand in his biography of cartoonist George Herriman Krazy, comics were already seen as crass art. However, a quote from Gilbert Seldes’ book The 7 Lively Arts that Tisserand includes in the biography defends comics in much the same way that Gioia defends rap music. To quote Seldes Tisserand writes, “Reading a comic, Seldes noted, is seen as a symptom of crass vulgarity, dullness, and, for all I know, of defeated an inhibited lives.”
In the 1920’s, when Seldes wrote his art review, comics were already seen as crass art. Their value was misunderstood, and the people who read them were seen as failures. Yet, looking back at comics and pop art from the time tells us something important about the era and the people. We enjoy seeing commonalities between ourselves a century later and the art, worries, thoughts, and ambitions represented in popular culture. We can understand a lot by looking at what was derided as crass art.
When we think about popular culture today, we shouldn’t simply scoff at it as crass art. There are forces the drive the popularity of certain forms of music, cinema, art, television, and media. Understanding what those forces are, recognizing what values, challenges, and life views are present in those forms of art can tell us a lot about who we are. Rather than simply dismissing popular culture as crass art, we should strive to be like Seldes and Gioia who work to understand that art and see its value and merit, even if it appears simple, vulgar, and ephemeral. We don’t have to like it and spend all of our time with it, but we should not simply dismiss it and the people who engage with it.
Creativity and our environment

Priming and Creativity

Continuing with the idea of priming, Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds researches the work of Jens Forster from the International University Bremen in Germany.  Forster asked people to participate in simple creativity exercises in environments that were specifically controlled and measured.  Forster began with an activity to mentally prime individuals by asking them to think about a certain stereotype, and measuring their creative ideas.  Following his mental priming experiment Forster executed a visual priming experiment. As Wiseman explains,


“Forster asked participants to take a standard creativity task (“think of as  many uses for a brick as possible”) while seated in front of one of two specially created art prints .  The two prints were each about three feet square, almost identical and consisted of twelve large crosses against a light green background.  In one picture all of the crosses were dark green, while in the other print eleven were dark green and one was yellow.  The researchers speculated that the unconscious mind would perceive this single yellow cross as breaking away from its more conservative and conventional green cousins and that this would encourage more radical and creative thinking.  The results were astounding.  Even though the participants didn’t consciously notice the picture, those seated in front of the “creative” picture produced significantly more uses for the brick.  A panel of experts judged their responses as far more creative.  The message is clear: if you want to fast track a group or and individual to think more creatively, use the power of visual priming.”


I find this experiment and idea to be really inspiring.  I have created my own simple art prints and placed them around my desk at work to help me generate more creative ideas throughout the day.  Prior to reading Wiseman’s book and beginning to listen to podcasts like Debbie Millman’s Design Matters, I never thought of myself as creative, but Forster’s experiments shows that everyone can be creative, especially if we prime ourselves for creativity both mentally and visually.

The Beauty of Creation

The last section of William Vollmann’s letter in James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, which I highlighted is a section on creation.  The short piece of advice reads, “Anyone can be an artist of sorts.  At the very least, trying to create something beautiful will help you see beauty in other created things, and that will make you happy.” I like this quote because it encourages everyone to do something creative, not because making something beautiful will make you rich, but because it will help you have a deeper appreciation of the world.

I believe that Vollmann’s quote applies to any creative process. This blog has helped me appreciate good writing, trying to create my own podcast (The Blue Pulse Podcast) has helped me appreciate other people’s creative podcasts, and being creative in more traditional artistic ways has helped me find a new appreciation for art.

Vollmann’s quote is a reflection of increased awareness in the world.  Prior to setting off on a creative journey it is easy to take well produced and high quality art for granted.  The creative process does not look so difficult from the outside and it is easy to simply accept the world as it is without peering past the surface to see the hard work and effort required to create the world we see.  Diving into art and creativity gives us an up close and personal view of the effort required to transform ones craft from rudimentary to outstanding.  As one gets started they see how much work is truly required to establish something meaningful, and as each small step or obstacle towards a goal is revealed, the respect for those who create grows.

I believe that this respect for hard work grows as we grow and strive for new goals.  The creative journey is a wonderful example, but as I have left college and entered the working world I have begun to appreciate just how hard others work.  I am truly fascinated with individual stories of reaching goals, and what I have come to learn is that the most successful people often work very hard with seemingly little support and recognition for about ten years before they reach the levels they would hope for.  This is true of career journeys as well as creative journeys, and while I don’t always agree with the paths and goals that people set out for themselves, I can respect the dedication and effort required to reach those goals.

In the end, Vollmann’s observation is powerful in the sense that what you begin to appreciate as you dive into the design world, the world of art, and the hidden world of individual creativity, is the drive and effort of others to produce meaning in the world.  Great art serves more than the creator, but everyone else in society.  By creating something that makes others pause to think, you put additional value in the world.


Bruce Benderson talks about living a full life, even if others are critical of the way you live, in his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice.  The quote from Benderson that I highlighted is, “Art is the radical decision to enjoy yourself at all cost.” When I reflect on this quote what I love is the idea of having a craft (drawing, writing, singing, bowling, etc…) and fully embracing and enjoying myself in the moment of executing a craft.  Benderson encourages us to think of our art as play, which to me means that we are always willing to try something new, change our approach, and look at things from new perspectives, because in the end our goal is not success as outsiders may define it, but the goal instead is a fullness that comes from expanding ones talent.

In his message is the idea that we can work our way forwards in our art or craft by remembering what it is we enjoy about the craft, and what pushed us to begin the craft.  I think we can also take this message and apply it to other areas of our life. Reminding ourselves what we love about our loved ones, the city we live in, and the job we have may help us appreciate those things.  I just finished a book called 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot written by Richard Wiseman. In his book he writes about the scientific backing to strategies, ideas, and myths that are popular in self-help communities. What he pulled from scientific literature on happiness is the idea that people who sit down and write out their thoughts about what they love in another person or what they are thankful for in their life tend to be happier and have stronger relationships.

I think we can combine these two ideas and start to develop a greater appreciation for the life and craft that we have. We can focus on why we do what we love to do, and what we enjoy from the jobs we do to sustain ourselves and family.