MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable

Two anecdotes stuck out to me in Derek Thompson’s Atlantic post about “The Four-Letter Code to Selling Just About Anything.

First, the concept that people prefer the image of themselves in the mirror to that in photos. I certainly do, and often feel like I look lopsided in photos. But that makes sense, since I’m seeing the mirror image of what I’m used to seeing. I imagine the same applies to the phenomenon of hearing one’s voice (which happens far less often). If you are used to hearing it come from your own mouth, with the baritone coming from your lungs, the nasally effect manifesting in your own nose, et cetera, that is be the familiar sound and so something close, but not quite there, is jarring.

Second, the clustering of popular names: Derek describes research done by Stanley Lieberson which concludes that “Most parents prefer first names for their children that are common but not too common, optimally differentiated from other children’s names. This helps explain how names fall in and out of fashion, even though, unlike almost every other cultural product, they are not driven by price or advertising. “

Our subconscious does more work than we give it credit for, and drives the ‘facts’ which we accept in product design, brand development, fashion, food, and even what constitutes ‘beauty’. As per this article, we all share a programmed yearning for familiarity, but perhaps not at the conscious level. That familiarity, perhaps established in our early evolution, establishes trust. But too familiar, and our conscious brain kicks in, as we also want individuality, and the ability to be unique in our expression and decisions. MAYA, or “most advanced yet acceptable” is Raymond Loewy, the iconic 20th century industrial designer’s, framework for describing this exact concept.

I always used to find it funny that so-called “creative types” dressed in similar ways, or how uniform the “alternative kids” trope was across American grade schools, or how certain typefaces fall into favor (or out of it, Comic Sans) in the name of “good design”. Why is the Scandanavian aesthetic, and mid-century modern furniture, found in so many Millennial households today?

Two easy conclusions come to mind.

First, beauty and style are often not so subjective as we let ourselves believe, but in fact follow a form that maps to the nature of our social psychology and neurology. We value belonging and the feeling of independence, and a healthy tension between those in a brand creates conditions for a consumer to fall in love with an aesthetic.

Second, given a formal structure to beauty and style, one can actually change the conditions for beauty, so long as she hews to the frameworks that motivate people. Recommendation and matching engines are not new in Internet history: digital advertising and e-commerce businesses have used behavioral psychology to design experiences that will optimize access to the consumer wallet. Pandora (and now Spotify, Apple, and other streaming radio services) can pick something I will probably like well, at this point. But these achievements only goes so far as curation. I wonder: can a software program design an aesthetic from scratch? 2016 was a landmark year for Artificial Intelligence interfaces taking market share in the consumer landscape, from customer service to scheduling, from health coaching to search. I have yet to see an AI-designed aesthetic that has succeeded, but the above suggests that the conditions for it are within reach.

It seems inevitable to me, then, that we will soon be able to develop technology can automatically design a sound, an image, or even a space, to appeal to the subjective mind. I wonder, as that time approaches, whether there is a greater premium on actually being truly unique in brand and design, rather than simply derivative, rather than anchoring in the familiar. My colleague Morgan wrote a thoughtful meditation about how odd truly transformative inventions look at first.