Taste, despite its omnipresence in the world of art and design, is a nebulous and ineffable concept. Over my discursive reading journey I’ve bumped into different attempts to describe it. Below is a mix of quotes, notes, and some of my humble add-ons. See the end for all cited works.

  1. First, there is such thing as good taste. Paul Graham proves it by reductio ad absurdum (2021):

    So if you want to discard the concept of good taste, you also have to discard the concept of good art. And that means you have to discard the possibility of people being good at making it. Which means there's no way for artists to be good at their jobs.

    ...I started studying painting. And it was just like other kinds of work I'd done: you could do it well, or badly, and if you tried hard, you could get better at it. And it was obvious that Leonardo and Bellini were much better at it than me. That gap between us was not imaginary. They were so good. And if they could be good, then art could be good, and there was such a thing as good taste after all.

  2. Defined brilliantly by painter John Folley (2019): “‘Good taste’ is simply to have a well formed opinion, in accordance with the realities of the Good, the True, and particularly the Beautiful, when it comes to questions of art.”

  3. Professor Donald Schön (1996) sees the development of taste as one attribute of a good designer:

    I use the term taste when I’m talking about the discriminatory appreciation of objects, with respect to, among other things, how well they are designed. A good designer has to have taste. It’s clear that having taste isn’t sufficient for being a good designer. But you do need to have it, in the sense that you’re able to make judgments of quality in many different ways.

  4. Taste can be manifested either through appreciation or creation. You can have an eye for good art without making any. However, good creators are almost always good appreciators because creating forces taste upon its makers. You simply need to know what’s good in order to produce good work.

  5. Aside from aesthetic taste, there are a variety of other tastes. To quote Susan Sontag (1964):

    There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion—and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. (One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.)

  6. One cannot bear to have taste in too many things because “to have taste is to be persnickety and one doesn’t want to be persnickety or annoyed about too many things” (Wolfson, 2022).

  7. Deciding to have a taste in what is itself a taste, a taste in what is of value. Have opinions, my friends, not on the choice of restaurants, style of clothing, or taste for the best boba; but the choice of words, styles of thinking, and taste for the best ideas.

  8. Taste exists in degrees. It is not binary—something “either you have it or you don’t”, even though colloquially we like to describe it in this way and equate “taste” with “good taste”.

  9. Taste is not innate but learned. Since it lives on a continuum, it can be developed further along it.

  10. Developing a good taste requires conscious efforts. “Though taste may appear effortless, you can’t have taste by mistake. It requires intention, focus, and care. Taste is a commitment to a state of attention. It’s a process of peeling back layer after layer, turning over rock after rock.” (Wolfson)

  11. In one of IA’s earlier blog posts they make a distinction between “personal taste” and “trained taste” (or sophistication):

    Whether I like pink or not, sugar in my coffee, red or white wine, these things are a matter of personal taste. These are personal preferences, and both designers and non-designers have them. This is the taste we shouldn’t bother discussing.

    Whether I set a text’s line height to 100% or 150% is not a matter of taste, it is a matter of knowing the principles of typography.

    However, whether I set a text’s line height at 150% or 145% is a matter of Fingerspitzengefühl; wisdom in craft, or sophistication.

    I’d argue personal taste of this kind is not taste at all. It is not a well-formed opinion but a mere whim in accordance to no external realities of Good or True. Personal preferences is personal because it’s only relative to oneself.

  12. On the contrary, trained taste is contextual. It doesn’t mean that you need to go through some formal training, it means that the taste is developed relative to some other things, particularly what people in different time and place think is good: the history (what was good), the trend (what is good), and the convention (what has always been seen as good)—criteria outside of yourself.

  13. To develop a trained taste is therefore to situate oneself in a temporal and spatial coordinate and be able to assume different lens. And that’s exactly how designers learn to recognize tasteful designs—through the practice of critique. The one who gives critique does not operate on his or her own personal preferences:

    Design evaluation, therefore, is not free or haphazard; it is limited by the tacit understandings of the hermeneutic community of designers; and it is not haphazard because the assessor has acquired a tacit understanding of design value and how it is assessed, a complex set of tacit norms, processes, criteria and procedural rules, forming part of a practical know-how.

    ...An absence of objectivity does not result in uncontrolled license, since the assessor is conforming to unspoken rules that, more or less unconsciously, constrain interpretation and evaluation. (Snodgrass & Coyne, 2006)

  14. Critique is fundamental to design because taste, like virtue, cannot be explicitly taught. It can only be intuited and gradually learned by following examples and submitting to the trade’s history and traditions. It takes time—years—to immerse oneself in the best works and tune one’s eyes to see better and see more. Schön talks about how he helps students become designers:

    One thing that I watch for is whether they have their own gyroscope—in other words, whether they can tell when they’ve got something that’s good. I look to see whether their sense of what’s good meets, at some minimal level, my own sense of what’s good. I look to see if there’s a big gap that I interpret as a gap in quality, showing that they haven’t gotten there yet.

  15. At the end of Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens quotes George Konrad as a parting note, which I’ve always pinned on the top my [[Career]] page in Roam:

    Have a lived life instead of a career. Put yourself in the safekeeping of good taste. Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses...If you don’t like the style of others, cultivate your own. Get to know the tricks of reproduction, be a self-publisher even in conversation, and then the joy of working can fill your days.


Folley, J.H. (2019). The Responsibilities of Good Taste.

Graham, P. (2021). Is There Such a Thing as Good Taste?

Hitchens, C. (2001). Letters to a Young Contrarian. New York: Basic Books.

iA. Learning to See.

Schön, D. (1996). Reflective Conversation with Materials. Bringing Design to Software. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Snodgrass, A. & Coyne, R. (2006). Interpretation in architecture: Design as a way of thinking. London: Routledge

Sontag, S. (1964). Notes on “Camp”.

Wolfson, B. (2022). Notes on “Taste”.