Controversial or Just Not Cool Yet?

We recently discovered an article from Fast Company entitled, “The Science of Cool: What Makes One Product Design Cool And Not Another?” It’s a great read that looks into a fairly interesting question posed by two marketing scholars, Caleb Warren and Margaret C. Campbell. The question, as you may have guessed, is what is cool or what makes something cool and something else not cool?

You can read Warren and Campbell’s jstor article here.

When marketers like Warren and Campbell ask these kinds of questions, they’re really attempting to peer into human psychology so the possibilities and conjectures based on their findings are more or less endless depending on your perspective. In the end, Warren and Campbell kind of reaffirm what we laypeople all more or less already believe about coolness which is that it it “doesn’t last.”

The Fonz, for reasons more or less unknown in subsequent decades, was considered very cool in the mid-70’s.

This quote from Warren sums it up best in the article’s final paragraph:

“If you’re really doing something right, the chances are the coolness isn’t going to last,” Warren says. “Because you’re going to shift what is the norm.”

But outside of always pushing the envelope or “diverging from the norm,” what are some of the other traits that define coolness in product design? Here are a couple the article brushes on:

1.) Cool is a social perception. Nothing is inherently cool.

2.) Cool is relative or based on context. The example the article gives is that a t-shirt from H&M is cooler than a t-shirt from Wal-Mart and certain t-shirts in H&M may seem cooler than others.

Something else the article points out is that coolness is a function of a product’s conventionality as well as its unconventionality:

“Being cool requires a very delicate balance of doing something that shows that you go your own way and do your own thing, but you do it in a way that is socially desirable or at least acceptable,” explains Warren.

You can take this conjecture a bit further, as Warren and Campbell do, and discuss when something is not cool. For example, when a product seems to push the envelope too far past what is considered socially acceptable it becomes “controversial.” This does not mean that extreme products do not have the potential to be cool as society catches up with them, but it does mean that extreme products when judged by contemporary standards are too outside of the norm to be considered cool.

Henry Winkler’s Happy Days character Arthur Fonzarelli is a good illustration of this point. While no one remembers exactly why the Fonz was so cool back in the ’70’s, it may have been due to the fact that he was only playing cool. The Fonz was a greaser–a hoodlum–but not really. He was a 1970’s sitcom version of a greaser–a kinder, gentler and subsequently cooler 1970’s version of what was once too extreme to be considered cool two decades prior. That, or maybe Western culture was simply mistaking irony with nostalgia. Nowadays, that nostalgia has been unabashedly replaced with irony. RE: Henry Winkler in Arrested Development.

When you hear these explanations of concepts such as “coolness,” they always seem to have been on the tip of your tongue, but someone else found a way to articulate them first. In a way, that’s true. When we sense that something is cool, we’re processing implicitly and more or less effortlessly a complex concept experts and scholars spend a great deal of time attempting to explain.

In that way, and this is another of those ideas we all sort of take for granted, the consumer, and not the marketers or the designers, is really the best judge of what is cool.







About the author

Seattle CPA+John Huddleston has written extensively on tax related subjects of interest to small business owners. Since 2002, he has owned his own small business, Huddleston Tax CPAs. He is a graduate of Washington State University and the University of Washington School of Law.


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