Quality Matters

Quality Matters

posted in: Commentary | 0

A short while back, I was engaged in a spirited discussion arguing against the New York Times’ decision to hire a climate-science “agnostic” as part of their regular opinions column. What harm could there be, the opposing party argued, in allowing someone with a differing opinion into the conversation?

Without getting too much into that debate, the gist of my counter-argument was that this writer is not part of the conversation. I’m sure that he himself would  certainly admit that he is no climate scientist. Why then, should he be part of a conversation on an objective science that he is unqualified to comment on? It would be like asking a brain surgeon to run a housing development. Or asking a businessperson to run a preschool. Or asking a marketing expert to guide foreign and domestic political policy. I digress.

Training one’s craft not only draws upon the experience of countless previous generations, but elevates standards all around.

Human society is entirely dependent on trust: in this case, it is climate scientists who dedicate their lives and their livelihoods to the study and interpolation of collected data. They’re not necessarily any more honorable than any other group of people, but it’s undeniable that they have a much better understanding of the data and science than a layman armed with Wikipedia citations. We trust them in their duty and ought to hold their opinions above those who only have a passing knowledge of that field. Trust in others (and their skills with material we might not readily understand ourselves) is literally the reason we do anything. We do our job because someone else is relying on the spoils. We go to a doctor when we feel sick; we go to a contractor when our homes need repair; we even go out to dinner because we prefer—and trust—someone else to handle the cooking, cleanup, and even the taste of the food we eat.

The art world is a funny thing because it based almost entirely on opinion, rather than on objective fact. Sure, we can judge art students by how well they pay attention to natural light and its effects, but in the end, it’s not technical skill alone that makes things popular. So why shouldn’t a layman be trusted to evaluate a piece like an art professor can? One might argue that the variety of artistic interpretations throughout world history show that the pursuit for quality and mastery don’t really matter.

Well, not quite. Ancient Incan sculpture has a much different standard than that of ancient Greek sculpture, but it still has a standard. Today, for example, most people can tell the difference between comic-book art that is more traditionally Western, versus that with a Japanese influence. And even in comics alone, artwork has generally become more sophisticated as well. Training one’s craft not only draws upon the experience of countless previous generations, but elevates standards all around. Specialists can fix problems that laypeople won’t even notice until they’re corrected.

I remember discussing a cookbook cover design with a group of editors and marketing people. They all agreed that the piece, which had been crafted by another designer, was nearly perfect, but that it made them feel “off” for some reason. It was a simple design consisting of a title and a photograph: a brightly-lit overhead shot of a dinner plate, fully loaded with delicious-looking food, and isolated against a white background. Still, it managed to evoke a sense of creeping dread. An editor asked me if it was something about the photo that made it look bad. “Oh, simple,” I said, “it’s because that photo is upside-down.”

The photographer had set up the shot so that the key light was slightly off center. Normally, when people view food, they are used to seeing it being lit from above. With the photo being rotated 180°, it created an effect similar to that of placing a flashlight underneath your chin when telling a scary story. When I reoriented the piece, everyone realized that the minor change made a significant difference as to how appealing the image was. If I hadn’t been trained to look for things like that, I doubt I would have noticed the mistake either, and the book would have gone to press with a “weird” cover.

So yes, the details matter. Maintaining a well-organized group of responsible specialists who set standards, and then surpass them, is key to every aspect of society.

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