Can quality be defined? Are there certain attributes that all quality items have, or is it purely subjective? In this essay, The Wirecutter's Allison Gibson contemplates the wealth of reasons why we would say something is "quality".
Image by Tina Mailhot-Roberge/Lifehacker
Earlier this year, through a series of events that involved a predawn drive deep into the Mojave Desert, I came into a windfall of Mid-Century Modern furniture. I loaded up a U-Haul trailer with what I considered to be high-quality designs: a Danish Modern dining set; a long, teak credenza; and, the fun surprise of the haul, a Packard Bell Stereophonic HiFi console.
It wasn't until I got these pieces home and, with some awkwardness, attempted to bring them into harmony with my existing belongings, that I began to wonder why I was so into this stuff. Why was it my default position — and that of most people who geek out over furniture — to call anything Eames-era "quality"?
For that matter, what does it mean when we say that anything is quality? Are we talking about how well it works? How good it looks? Whatever it means, we use that word a lot, and in a lot of different contexts.
Not long ago, Ben Greenman of the New Yorker tweeted: "There should be a second word for quality, since so many things people say are good aren't, and vice versa." When I asked him to elaborate, he told me that, yes, it's bothersome that everything is "stamped with a label, with a Metacritic score," but even more exhausting is that these labels are assigned so eagerly. "Technology," he said, "makes it easy, rewarding, and possibly even compulsory to react immediately."
And it's true. I thought then of gadget blogs — of the breathless way that new products are hailed as shining beacons of hope on the day they're announced, often without the why being fully articulated. But it's not just the tech world. With everything from fashion to furniture we instantly fetishise designs, believing what we're looking at is high-quality when we might really be focusing on the shiny fragments that orbit around the objects themselves: branding, hype, style.
So then what does define quality?
The New Oxford American Dictionary says that quality is "the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something". But that definition doesn't satisfy, because, as I see it, it's both too abstract and too restrictive. I decided that to get a real understanding of what quality means it would be better to ask some people who know a thing or two about it than to consult a dusty tome.
A Product's Design Must Be Detailed And Timeless
Yves Béhar is a guy who has designed everything from Herman Miller chairs to Jambox wireless speakers to an inexpensive laptop that gives millions of kids in the developing world access to technology and education.
"Quality," he tells me, "is when every part of an experience-from the product to the UI, from the packaging to the retail experience — has been crafted to the highest details." He considers good quality and good design to be one in the same.
I wonder then whether Béhar thinks that a good design — as he has defined it — needs to also be timeless, or whether it can be unapologetically now and still be quality. He says for something to be "timeless", it needs to be given time to percolate. We often conflate the words "classic" and "style", which are not mutually exclusive but also are not the same thing. Too often, he says, a new design will be called timeless right out the gate simply because it looks a lot like other designs that we've come to regard as classics. Which challenges no one. The style he finds least challenging? Minimalism: "All that says is that the design decisions were made based on style only."
It's refreshing to hear Béhar speak so candidly about this style. Also, curious. After all, much of what he himself has designed falls under the umbrella of minimalism. His point, however, doesn't seem to be that a modernist design cannot be of good quality — it's just that it has to work that much harder to prove its value by doing what he first said quality design does, which is provide the user with a quality experience.
Thinking about Yves Béhar's views on classics, I'm reminded of my Mid-Century Modern haul. I am especially haunted by the HiFi, which after quickly realising it is not in working condition I've stripped of all functionality. All it does now is sit under a stack of recent Paris Reviews and a potted succulent. And I continue to listen to music the new old-fashioned way, playing iTunes through Apple TV to my Onkyo receiver. Not quite as romantic as a record player but it works.
Maybe the HiFi was a miss, but I still wonder if it was worth it for me to stock up on this other old stuff. I ask Apartment Therapy founder Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan why people who are into design are so drawn to these classics — why they're considered such high-quality. He tells me that classics like Mid-Century designs "pass beyond trend to become truly great discoveries in form and function", and that if a person loves design it's only natural she'd want to have some of these pieces in her home.
It Must Be "Emotionally Radioactive"
Now that I've heard about quality design, I wonder how all this applies to things that aren't mass-produced. Art. Literature. Music. Films. Ideas, in general. How do you measure their quality?
"Consumer products are supposed to reveal themselves all at once," Ben Greenman tells me. "No one wants to be surprised by a label maker later. They want it to work now." In addition to being an editor at the New Yorker, Greenman is a novelist and short story writer. When I ask him if there is a different standard of quality for art, he explains that this is where so many hasty critics get it wrong. The way to judge the quality of art is different, he argues, "not for romantic reasons, but because it's emotionally and philosophically radioactive, which means that it decays and that it gives off energy". (One might argue that the best technology also features this trait of emotional radioactivity.)
I ask Greenman to propose another word for quality. He says: "'meaning'…but that's sententious. I would say ‘stickiness,' but that's disreputable. I think maybe it's the things that create a persistent mix of wildness and peace inside."
It Must Provide A Consistent Experience
I am talking with Hamish Robertson, who is a digital editor at Vanity Fair and who also publishes the printed arts and culture journal AFTERZINE. After he tells me his criteria for selecting quality content to publish (a process he likens to putting together a dream dinner party), I ask him to tell me about some of his favourite products. I'm surprised when he tells me about an ice cream scoop.
It's the Zerroll 20, found on Amazon for under $US20. All metal with no moving parts. Apparently, it's indestructible. "Scooping results are consistently perfect," Robertson says. "Plus it expedites the process of delivering ice cream to my bowl."
There's no doubt that the marketplace is brimming with ice cream scoops priced lower than the Zerroll. But Robertson didn't deem those to be the best quality. Likewise, the marketplace is stocked full of high and low-priced options for almost any genre of consumer product. While it's fair to say that the most high quality product isn't always the most expensive, we also can't completely ignore the influence that cost has over determining an object's quality. Or our perception of quality. (Granted, some shit is just overpriced.)
It's like this: I think we can agree that, in a perfect market, when things cost more it's because they cost more to make on the back end. And they cost more to make because the materials are better, or because they take longer to build. And, in turn, better materials and more meticulous craftsmanship generally means that the product will last longer. Finally, a product that lasts longer is worth purchasing in the long run because — and this is obvious — it doesn't need to be replaced as often. Which makes it a less expensive experience, if you amortize that price over time. Of course, some things are deemed quality precisely because they won't last a long time. Gummy race car tires. Freshly caught fish. Sunsets.
Quality Is Subjective
Maria Popova's Brain Pickings has become a daily source of exploration for the information-hungry among us. And while she traffics mostly in unearthed gems from library archives and out-of-print books, I ask her to define quality as it applies to all things, not just the intangibles. But she isn't so easily cajoled into producing a one-size-fits-all definition. Instead she turns the idea of inherent quality on its head.
"Quality is, of course, enormously subjective," she tells me. "It's what something gives and means to us, not an absolute. Brian Eno has said that we confer value on things, and it's the act of conferring that makes things valuable — I believe this is true of quality, too."
For her, the kinds of things to look for when assigning value this way include timelessness, beauty, honesty, simplicity, ethicality, and joy. "There must be joy," she says. "Otherwise, we conflate quality with convenience."
I'm sort of mesmerised by this idea that convenience shouldn't be confused for quality. And it's while I'm thinking about this that I am met with an elegant example of the meaning of quality. When I ask professional surfer Timmy Curran to tell me what makes for a quality surfboard, I expect him to say something about its contours or what it's made of. Instead he says, "When I am on a quality surfboard I don't have to over-think riding the wave. A quality board works well in all conditions — I can only blame myself if I blow it."
The nature of quality is that it's hard to pin down. I can look into it forever and never find two matching definitions. Because, ultimately, it's about intuition. I do know that sometimes quality is a thing so desirable it'll lead you to chase the rising sun across a barren desert just to grab a heap of furniture that another person might call junk.
I've had enough time by now to eat some home cooked meals at my salvaged dining table, which smells of well-worn teak and grandma's house. And I've filled the credenza with trinkets and baubles. Now I can see that there's no reason to second-guess these old things. Because, the simple fact is, I love them more than most anything else I own. Even if I can't exactly define why.
Defining Quality [The Wirecutter]
Allison K. Gibson is a Southern California based writer and editor. Her writing about art, books and technology appears in The Millions, L.A. Weekly, Huffington Post Arts, The Wirecutter, Beautiful/Decay and Digital Photographer, among other publications. She holds a graduate degree in creative writing from USC. Reach her at allisongibson.com or @allisonkgibson.