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Why Taste vs Skill will change your career (forever)
How the top designers, PMs level up their taste and skills to be the world's best. Lessons from Apple, Netflix and, Facebook.
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In the journey of becoming a designer/product builder/founder, two elements play pivotal roles: Taste and Skills. Let's dive into the significance of these components and how they shape your growth…
In the journey of rising as a Designer/PM, two elements play pivotal roles: Skills and Taste.
Let's dive into the significance of these components and how they shape your growth.
Taste, akin to taste in the art world, is an elusive quality.
It's subjective, a personal compass that guides your creative choices. This taste is honed over time, refined by exposure to different styles, understanding what resonates with you, and what doesn't. It's an evolutionary process and one that's unique to every individual.
On the other hand, skills are concrete.
They're the tangible components that can be learned, practiced, and mastered over time. Skills form the foundation of your craft, the bedrock upon which your creative expressions are built.
This is true for anything, from designing a product to managing a team — but let’s stick with the designing example as it is easier to follow.
Taste is knowing what is good — being able to recognize it.
Skill is the ability to design — to do what’s needed to do the work.
Taste and skill are totally independent. PMs (may) have great taste, but they don’t know how to design themselves. Mediocre PMs, in turn, might know exactly how to design but have no taste for making great experiences.
To make truly great work, you need both.
But why does this matter to your personal growth? Because framed in these terms, a fundamental question for your growth becomes whether your skill is good enough for your taste (as a designer, PM, growth marketer, founder, or more).
Based on this, you can be in one of two scenarios:
1) Taste > Skill
When your taste is ahead of your skill, you won’t be happy with the work you produce.
Stop a minute and think about it: all the times you are dissatisfied with your work, it just means that your taste for what is good is ahead of what you are able to create.
This conflict is good — in fact, it is what allows your skill to grow. You have a reference for something you aren’t able to achieve, and you go for it.
This brings us to the second scenario…
2) Skill ≥ Taste
When your skill is better/equal to your taste, then you are able to build what you think is good. This makes you happy about your work but also stops you from growing unless you grow your taste first.
This dynamics between taste and skill is crucial.
Skill is your floor, taste is your ceiling.
Based on the relationship they are in, you should decide whether the best bet for your growth is either to raise your floor (skill) or your ceiling (taste).
Now, I have found that most books, courses, and traditional learning devices are largely focused on skills.
The most effective way to improve your taste, instead, is by being exposed to what is good.
If you want to create a great team, for example, it is infinitely easier if you have worked in one before.
This makes good taste generally more valuable than good skills because the latter is easier to catch up with.
And this is also why at the beginning of your career, it is so valuable to join a great team. Other than learning how to do stuff, you are also educating yourself on what a great team looks like. Two birds with one stone!
The best of both worlds?
If great taste is knowing what’s good, and great skill is knowing how to build things, there is a third element that I have consistently found in the most experienced people.
They do not only know what is good — they also know exactly why.
They know what makes good things good.
Which is less trivial than it seems.
I may have designed 1000s of UIs and developed a good, intuitive taste for good ones, but I may not be able to explain how my judgment works. And that may be fine unless I ever want to be a full UI designer. At that point, closing that gap becomes crucial, because knowing what makes good things good is what ultimately allows taste to turn into skills.
In my experience, there are two main ways that help you with that:
Keep building/designing things — being dissatisfied with your output constantly triggers your reasoning and makes you ask, “Why do I think this is crap?”.
Ge mentored by others — when you discuss some subject, you need to elaborate on your judgment. If you disagree with somebody about something being good, chances are you want to figure out why. (Get mentored on ADPList).
🔮 True Stories of Taste and Skills
Facebook: Facebook's "like" button is a perfect example. It's a simple, universally understood icon that was created by designer Soleio Cuervo. His taste guided him towards a minimalistic design that users around the world could easily recognize and use. On the other hand, his design skills ensured the "like" button functioned correctly and could be implemented seamlessly into Facebook's UI.
Apple: Apple's design philosophy heavily emphasizes the taste aspect. Steve Jobs believed in the intersection of technology and liberal arts and insisted that products should not only be easy to use but also aesthetically pleasing. This is evident in all of Apple's products and interfaces, which showcase a minimalist aesthetic, attention to detail, and a high degree of user-friendliness. The skills of Apple's designers are employed to realize this vision, creating products that are as functional as they are beautiful.
Netflix: Netflix uses taste and skills in its product design and management. Netflix's recommendation algorithm is a clear example of skill - using data science and machine learning to suggest content to users. However, the way those recommendations are presented to the user - the layout of the thumbnails, the design of the user interface - is a matter of taste, guided by an understanding of what is visually appealing and easy to navigate.
How to use this in your career
When you ponder your options, whether it is your career path, or what you should design as a designer or build as an engineer/PM, I believe you should ask yourself: why me?
Why are you better positioned than most other people for doing that?
Why do you have a special shot at being successful?
The best opportunities are often about hard things for which you happen to have good answers to the questions above.
And these answers lie in some unique combination of your taste and skills.
We do great things when we have good taste and good skills. Based on where you stand, effective strategies for your career can be:
Grow your taste: for example, by joining a team that excels in a particular area or, more generally, exposing yourself to high-quality work.
Grow your skills in something you already have a good taste for: Such as management, because you were fortunate to have a great boss for a long time who served as an inspiration to you.
Combine your existing taste and skills: You might start your own freelancing because you enjoy seeing UI (taste), design well (skill), and have a lot of experience in a certain field (taste + skill).
Useful reference by Y Combinator: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=33449065.
Hope you enjoyed reading this week’s newsletter 🙏 this one is super interesting to write and research. Let me know what you’ve learnt from this/share it forward!
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