Ramblings & ephemera

Why is American design so often terrible compared to Japanese design?

From Paul Graham’s “Made in USA” (November 2004):

Americans are good at some things and bad at others. We’re good at making movies and software, and bad at making cars and cities. And I think we may be good at what we’re good at for the same reason we’re bad at what we’re bad at. We’re impatient. In America, if you want to do something, you don’t worry that it might come out badly, or upset delicate social balances, or that people might think you’re getting above yourself. If you want to do something, as Nike says, just do it. …

For centuries the Japanese have made finer things than we have in the West. When you look at swords they made in 1200, you just can’t believe the date on the label is right. Presumably their cars fit together more precisely than ours for the same reason their joinery always has. They’re obsessed with making things well.

Not us. When we make something in America, our aim is just to get the job done. Once we reach that point, we take one of two routes. We can stop there, and have something crude but serviceable, like a Vise-grip. Or we can improve it, which usually means encrusting it with gratuitous ornament. When we want to make a car “better,” we stick tail fins on it, or make it longer, or make the windows smaller, depending on the current fashion. …

Letting focus groups design your cars for you only wins in the short term. In the long term, it pays to bet on good design. The focus group may say they want the meretricious feature du jour, but what they want even more is to imitate sophisticated buyers, and they, though a small minority, really do care about good design. Eventually the pimps and drug dealers notice that the doctors and lawyers have switched from Cadillac to Lexus, and do the same.

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