Taste vs Tested

Lance Creativity, Excellence Leave a Comment

When creating something of value is the name of the game, how do you decide what to make? Whether you are working with wood, fabrics, water colors, circuit boards, pixels, or words, there are two basic approaches:

  • You decide for yourself.
  • Someone else tells you.

These two starting points are true even when you factor out those order-taking situations in which a customer hands you a set of specs and says “I want you to build that.” In those cases, you are filling the role of a 3D printer: bringing to physical form the creative idea of another.

But if it is you (or your group/team/organization) that has to come up with the next great idea/design/product/message, which path is best? That depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.


To create from taste is “the ability to select, combine and create experiences that the tribe likes–before they know that they like it.” This requires having someone with the guts to say “I think this will work” combined with the willingness to admit “but it may not.” This is the essence of being an artist: taking a risk in pursuit of a gut instinct about what will work. Consider the words of one of the world’s foremost product designers, Apple’s Jony Ives:

We shouldn’t be afraid to fail — if we are not failing we are not pushing. 80% of the stuff in the studio is not going to work.


The alternative to the artist-centric method of creating from taste is the more scientific-y feeling method of market research, focus groups, and poll testing. There is an obvious allure to this approach: the risk of outright failure is dramatically reduced because the creation is tailored to the audience’s expressions of interest up front. If the point of producing a movie is to generate maximum box office revenue, it makes sense to change the ending if need be to make for happier movie-goers. If the point of political speechcraft is to generate the most voter support, the thinking goes, it makes sense to allow focus groups full of voters to select the very words to be used.

There’s an additional, less obvious benefit to this method of creation: it shields the producer of a product that fails from responsibility. In a world that dictates design by market research, a design that falls flat isn’t the fault of the Designer but of the Data … and bad data doesn’t get fired.

So, back to the question: what are you trying to accomplish with your next creative effort? If it is to minimize risk and avoid the blunt-force trauma of being responsible for a failure, then Test first and follow the directions that are the result. If, on the other hand, you want to produce something that is meaningful and game-changing, find someone with Taste, trust their judgment,  empower them to create and support them when they fail.

Both methods are necessary; it’s the direction you move from one to the other that matters.

  • Taste: “Here. This is what I’ve made. Tell me what you think.”
  • Test: “This is what will work according to the research. Go make that.”

The first produces initially crazy things like a camera in a cell phone. The second gives us bumper-sticker rhetoric like “climate change” and “death tax.” Choose accordingly.

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