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U.S. Companies and 'The Substance of Style'


Ford and GM are hardly the only ones struggling to make their products more stylish. Design expert Virginia Postrel says that whether it's cars, washing machines or toothpaste, companies are relying more than ever on aesthetics.

Ms. VIRGINIA POSTREL (Design Expert): We're in a very competitive market. It's good for consumers. There's a lot of price pressure. Quality in terms of functional quality has gotten very high in very many industries, and so if businesses want their product to stand out and not just be a commodity, you know, how low can your price go, they need to look to other ways to add value, and today, that added value often comes in the form of some sort of aesthetic value.

INSKEEP: When you say functional quality, you mean that almost any television you buy is probably going to work fine, but the one that looks nicer might be the one that I'd actually take off the shelf.

Ms. POSTREL: Exactly. The television works, the car works, the toilet brush works, the hotel has a bed in it. You know, what are you going to be--how are you going to stand out? It's to give people intangible values, not just the functional values, but some sort of sensory pleasure, some greater meaning, all these things that come through aesthetics.

INSKEEP: So what are some products that have recently been redesigned and the redesigns, in your view, succeeded?

Ms. POSTREL: Well, one product that's actually a new product that I was very struck by is Crest has a new mouthwash, and it is in such a beautiful bottle and so striking that when you see it on the shelf, the blue mouthwash, that even though I don't use mouthwash I almost bought some, because--and it...

INSKEEP: What does it look like? Is it like the, you know, curves of a human body or something? I mean, what's it do?

Ms. POSTREL: Well, it's somewhat curvy but it's--has a sort of--there's also a triangular sort of shape going on there, but it's very striking, and it's particularly striking when you see it in a drugstore next to the very bland generic-looking Listerine bottle. And this is part of a design initiative by Procter & Gamble throughout their company to say, `We're not just going to look at the technical qualities of our products,' which they've always done in the past, `but we're also going to look at the experience that the user has with them in terms of the more intangible sensory qualities.'

INSKEEP: Virginia Postrel is the author of "The Substance of Style."

Coming to you with flashy new packaging, this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.