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Looks matter

By Virginia Postrel

Forbes Magazine, 05.03.99

KINKO'S HAS LAUNCHED a $40 million marketing effort to convince customers that everyday communication requires polished graphics. Its ads depict humorous applications -- tell off the boss by leaving him a travel brochure for hell or pop the question with graphs of your increasing love and projected earnings -- but the message is serious.

Appearance matters. As the tag line says, "Sometimes it's not just what you say but how you say it."

 

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Welcome to the esthetic economy. Technology and competition are driving down the cost of beauty, from four-color printing to cosmetic surgery to mass-market furniture. Meanwhile, we're getting richer and demanding a more esthetically pleasing environment. More beauty is a natural product of increased affluence. Good design is an important source of economic value and competitive advantage.

"In a world in which most consumers have their basic needs satisfied, value is easily provided by satisfying customers' aesthetic needs," write marketing professors Bernd Schmitt and Alex Simonson in the book Marketing Aesthetics. Those needs aren't limited to such niches as fashion, cosmetics or entertainment. Starbucks, for instance, built its brand not just on coffee but on a distinctive style that echoes the precise lines and luxurious textures of high-end office design.

Or consider Target's new line of housewares: some 200 items designed by architect Michael Graves This isn't a celebrity play -- Graves is well- known among style aficionados, but he's hardly Martha Stewart. Rather, Target is betting that fun design will drive up sales; Graves is just the unifying brand. If you've got the cute Graves toaster, you'll want the matching mixer, tea kettle and can opener. And only Target stores will have them.

That's the good-news scenario. If the beauty bar goes up everywhere, however, the gains will go to consumers, not producers. As with computers, we will get a "productivity paradox." The world will be better-looking -- a good thing, and thus an increase in the general standard of living -- but investing in esthetics will mean business survival, not higher profits. And that race is on.

Esthetic expectations have increased everywhere, from the signs on neighborhood shops to the look of rsums. No business pitch is complete without PowerPoint slides. That's why Kinko's can cater to customers' insecurities about unslick presentation. Like most economic trends, the esthetic economy has its losers: What if you were just born ugly, or your publication can't afford color printing? What happens to the great cook who can't design an attractive restaurant?

Besides these victims, the esthetic economy draws fire from people who think beauty is frivolous or subversive. Social critic Daniel Bell numbers the "follies of fashion, luxury, splendor and extravagance" among the "culture contradictions" that will doom capitalism. (Shame on Starbucks.) Beauty, he suggests, is incompatible with the ascetic Protestant ethic.

Less abstractly, Scott McNealy, the chairman of Sun Microsystems, famously banned PowerPoint as a waste of time and bandwidth. He wants plain text, without special fonts or formatting. It's the perfect crusade for a macho engineer -- and it's a loser. Stigmatizing beauty is business suicide.

The better strategy is to learn the difference between using every gewgaw in the tool kit and creating a pleasing package. Don't ban graphics; do ban three-dimensional bar charts showing two-dimensional information. Don't ban creativity in the sales brochure; do ban font free-for-alls that make the brochure look like a ransom note.

When the design magazine I.D. recently honored North America's "most design-driven companies," most of the standout products were both distinctive and functional: the Airstream trailer, the Bloomberg screen, the Oral-B toothbrush, the Amazon.com Web site. Even analytical nerds could appreciate them. That's the esthetic economy's power: Idealogues may call beauty a myth, intellectuals may insist that the thought is all that counts, corporate managers may squirm at dealing with artists -- but beauty appeals to us all. Ignore it at your peril.

Virginia Postrel is editor-at-large of Reason magazine, a columnist for The New York Times, and author of The Future and Its Enemies, and editor of its companion Web site www.dynamist.com. She is writing a book, to be published in 2002 by HarperCollins, about the social and economic role of aesthetics. This article originally appeared in Forbes Magazine and is reprinted at www.beautyworlds.com with permission.

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Awakening BeautyAnthony Napoleon, the author of Awakening Beauty: An Illustrated Look at Mankind's Love and Hatred of Beauty, is a psychologist who has spent many years studying beauty and its impact upon both individuals and society. He has worked with both cosmetic surgery patients and beauty pageant contestants as well as conducting original research into the field. Awakening Beauty is an unprecedented exposé on the subject of beauty. It is both entertaining and thought provoking, a combination that is as unique as it is telling about the author's approach to the subject of this book. The reader is taken backstage into the worlds of beauty pageants, plastic surgery, trophy wives, murderous rage, wardrobe, makeup, Bill Clinton, the events of September Eleven and other provocative topics where beauty has had its effect. Awakening Beauty invites the reader into a world that is as interesting as it is frightening. Readers are transformed as the author shepherds them from their world into his unique perspective and expertise on beauty. Awakening Beauty includes over one hundred tantalizing photographs and illustrations. Awakening Beauty is a compendium of some of the most interesting facts in print. The subject matter of the book along with the author's unique approach to it makes this book a "must read." Get ready to re-think everything you thought you knew about beautiful women and physical attractiveness.

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