Years ago a friend spoke about a drawing by his 5-year-old daughter in a way that was simultaneously hilarious and shocking.
"They were terrible!" he said. "She asks me how they are... I lie and say they're great of course. But what if she believes this when she's 16 and wants to go to art school?"
While it's a little premature to be thinking about art school, this story stuck with me because it's funny and because there's an important insight about taste and aesthetics.
Taste is often seen as something rather subjective. "One person's something is another person's something else" as the saying sort of goes.
You've likely seen or heard a child criticise another for colouring outside the lines or using the wrong colours.
A parent or a teacher will often say something like "let them do it their way." One person's purple SpongeBob SquarePants is... well, hopefully you get the message.
However, as soon as that same teacher or parent takes the child away from SpongeBob and to an art gallery, taste suddenly becomes objective.
When a 5-year-old is shown some Leonardo, Raphaelle, or other such artists they initially hoped were Ninja Turtles, they're told it is good and that is a stone-cold fact.
It is good because old dead people said so a long time ago.
So which side of the fence should we sit on? Is there objective good taste or not?
When asked whether taste is an objective fact, we tend to skate around the subject almost like it's a taboo. Adults rarely reflect on why they experience pleasure from things and flip-flop between whether or not something is nice "FACT" or something is nice "IT'S JUST MY OPINION".
Perhaps it's just a way to avoid arguments...
But people everywhere do have a sense of what can be described as aesthetic experience - things they do in life because they bring pleasure to the senses.
Life is for experiences. We get pleasure from things that are well designed: whether that be beautiful writing, striking art, a great night club or a tasty meal.
Take booze for example.
Humans have stepped foot on the moon yet in 2021 we refuse to create safer methods of opening champagne bottles.
That's because the pop and the fizz brings a ceremonial feel. It's all part of the experience that activates our senses. We'll happily injure an eyes to maintain that experience because we are sensory beings.
Next to my bed I have a pocket-sized book of Kakuzo Okakura's 'The Book of Tea', a 1906 book about the art of tea in Japan. I don't really know why it lives there, perhaps it's a reminder to keep things simple.
Anyway... The book is about taste (in both senses), culture, art, spirituality, and craft all wrapped into an aesthetic experience.
My friend wouldn't be right to crush any artistic dreams his 5-year-old daughter currently has. But nor are most other adults correct in assuming that taste is just personal preference and anyone can do whatever they like and it cannot be questioned.
That's not to say other people should be stopped doing what they're doing. People can like different sounds in music, but no one wants to sit and listen to a 5-year-old crying for an hour after her father told her she can't draw.
There are limits in the bandwidth of taste.
If I've persuaded you that taste can be objective, that also means that it could well be a skill we can learn. The ability to 'learn good taste' sounds very high-minded but it's actually very normal.
If you practice and study one thing regularly, such as listening to jazz, you will likely begin to gain deeper insights and understanding of why certain compositions demand extra attention over others.
And surely there can't be many skills more important than good taste - or, in less airy terms, the ability to understand why stuff is good.
The most obvious way is simply by learning a craft, but one cannot learn everything.
Pauline Brown, author of Aesthetic Intelligence: How to Boost It and Use It in Business and Beyond, has some solid ideas about how taste, or as she labels it, 'aesthetic intelligence', can be learned.
Having taste is our ability to understand, interpret, and articulate feelings that are elicited by a particular object or experience.
First, she says we need attunement: "developing a higher consciousness of one’s environment and the effect of its stimuli." Put another way, knowing what is exciting your senses.
Secondly, interpret your reactions based on the stimuli. How does a video make your eyes and ears react? Why? How?
Thirdly, it's articulation: transmitting your information so it can be applied and executed in similar ways.
What I like about this is that it takes you a level deeper when you go to copy something you like.
Oftentimes, surface-level information - the easy stuff that hits our lazy brains from the get-go - will give a shallow or predictable reason for a particular piece of art or advert moving us.
But what we are really searching for is the uncommon. And this can only come with deeper investigation.
When you know more about a craft, you have the tools to dig deeper.
Take champagne for example: a sommelier will have the ability to explain the differences between Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in great detail. They have developed the tools - smell, taste, visuals - to see and the knowledge to understand.
But of course it's challenging to have all the tools across a variety of fields. You can't be an expert of everything.
Good taste then can therefore be a guiding force in communications work - a kind of super smeller to sniff out something beautiful.
What this also means is that you don't have to be the maker. Steve Jobs was not a maker. What he had was incredible imagination and intuition to mobilze artists and designers to make his ideas come to life.
Function over form
We should resist always prioritising function over form. Focusing on data and analytics is not a map of the human reality playing out in front of us.
When there is a trend or the hot new thing, many organizations understandably try to attach themselves to them. Government and UN leaders will clamber over each other to have a photo with the likes of Korean boyband BTS knowing it'll travel to millions of people (or even billions). The results from data are excellent.
That's fine, but alongside this we should also what it is about bands like BTS that move so many people across the planet.
It would be foolish to simply say "it's the music". That is not using aesthetic intelligence.
If asked why you like your favourite restaurant, your first answer will likely be "good food". But if we dig deeper we start to learn more.
It could be the way it is decorated which gives you a homely feel, or the way to lighting makes people look nice, or perhaps it's the music.
Likewise with BTS, we should dig and ask why it is they move so many millions of people, including the many millions who don't understand a word of Korean... What are they expressing that connects with the hearts of minds of so many?
There is also a strong economic argument here. Or perhaps an anti-economist argument. It's the question of utility.
People's tastes do not generally fit within economic models.
On paper there is no reason Dyson selling hoovers for hundreds of dollars and Starbucks selling rather pricey ok-ish coffee would be viable business models. But they work very well.
They work because they activate those aesthetically inclined neurons. People walk into Starbucks and the smells, the decor, the welcome make them think, "yes, this is nice, let's stay here".
That's difficult to measure.
The human brain is very illogical most of the time. As Jonathan Haidt put it: "the conscious brain thinks it is the Oval office, but it is actually the Press Office."
Seeking the good stuff
As I've blathered on about several times already, data will never give a complete picture of the story. But, I realise that in my career I've also often been wrong despite knowing this.
I would often say that analytics would only do so much. But my follow up was that we should "go out and ask".
Problem is, being the emotional lizard-brained monkeys we are, we don't know what we like.
Actually, we're terrible at knowing.
"People don't think what they feel, don't say what they think and don't do what they say" - David Ogilvy.
That's why it's important to dig into popular culture, both past and present, to help us better understand people - and indeed the future.
Data based on humans cannot be seen as a truth machine. Art can never be a science, but it as extremely advanced way of learning about people, cultures and different ways of thinking.
Let's return to Japan and tea 120 years ago.
If I wanted to really understand what it was like then, seeing the balance sheets and trade deals between tea merchants would only tell me so much. I also need literature and paintings to build a more thorough picture.
Going outside and asking people is one step. The second is taking time to observe and be aware.
Being aware means feeling. We can step into a meeting room or a bar and within seconds our spidey-senses tell us the mood is good or bad.
Those are the senses we need to bring to our work more often and with more confidence, because that brings the essence of real, truthful experience - and to create the good stuff.