Class and Web Design, Part 2: What Class are You?

Published on Author Christopher Fahey15 Comments
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As I discussed in my previous post, class is one of the few things Americans simply don’t like to talk about. Paul Fussell discusses this reluctance in the introduction to his excellent Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (a classic book I read many years ago and just picked up again to help me with this series):

Although most Americans sense that they live within an extremely complicated system of social classes and suspect that much of what is thought and done here is prompted by considerations of status, the subject has remained murky. And always touchy. You can outrage people today simply by mentioning social class, very much the way, sipping tea among the aspidistras a century ago, you could silence a party by adverting too openly to sex.

Design observers and commentators can usually, like Steven Heller in the Bush backdrop example, get away with not discussing class because we don’t often have to deal with class-crossing products or sites. If you typically design for Cartier, The Museum of Modern Art, and JP Morgan, you probably won’t find yourself designing for Reader’s Digest or the Christian Coalition any time soon. What’s more, the conversations we have about design and the articles we read about design tend to limit themselves to a narrow and somewhat higher-end strata of the American class hierarchy. When lower-end product design is discussed, it is usually to sneeringly point out how “bad” it is. We rarely stray from the comfort of our own class milieu.

But before I go further, I think I should explain and define what exactly I mean by “class”.

What is Class?

A lot of people think class is the same as wealth, that the more money or income you have, the higher your class. But even in common everyday usage, this is not really the case. Class includes a whole lot more: your education level, your cultural awareness, the prestige of your occupation, your family history, your geographic background. (Sadly, it also includes your ethnic and religious backgrounds, but I’m not going to cover that because (a) I’ll put my foot in my mouth, and (b) generally, I think the problems around those issues often go well beyond what any class discussion can adequately cover.)

Here I’d like to quote the Wikipedia summary of the nine (actually ten) social classes Paul Fussell says comprise the American class system:

  • Top out-of-sight: the “Old Money” wealthy who avoid public exposure (in part, due to experiences during the 1930s, when it was not to one’s advantage to be wealthy).
  • Upper Class: a group of those who are not only wealthy, but usually born into the wealth, and who espouse a different set of values than wealthy middle-class people or “proles”.
  • Upper-Middle Class: much better off than the majority, this class still lives primarily off earned income derived from professional status requiring expensive education: doctors, attorneys, upper-middle management, and so forth. Dentists and accountants are somewhat more problematic. This class is characterized by intense interest in higher education, and is generally the target audience of mainstream but elitist publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and so forth.
  • Middle Class: most “white collar” workers, including many of the self-employed, and a group most afflicted with status anxiety and confusion, envying the refinement of the upper-middle class and the leisure of the uppers.
  • High Prole: skilled, often wealthy manufacturing or service workers, who may outearn middle and even upper-middle class people but maintain a distinctively “lowbrow” culture.
  • Mid Prole: an intermediate level of often poor workers, but with stable employment and relative security.
  • Low Prole: the working poor, with difficulty finding steady employment.
  • Destitute: the homeless underclass.
  • Bottom out-of-sight: those incarcerated in prisons, or otherwise outside the purview of sociology; like top-out-of-sights, they fall so low in society as to become effectively invisible.

[…]

Fussell also proposes the existence of a small subset of Americans who don’t fit into any of the above social classes, known as “Category X”. Recruited from all social classes, they are the intellectual, stylish misfits whom others try to emulate, but by no means qualify as an elite. Fussell claims “X” to be a category rather than class since one gains membership on account of personal qualities and values rather than social background or breeding.

If you still can’t help but think of class solely as an articulation of wealth, perhaps it would help to think of there being different kinds of wealth. Again according to Wikipedia, in Pierre Bourdieu’s The Forms of Capital, three types of “capital” are identified:

  • Economic capital: command over economic resources (cash, assets).
  • Social capital: resources based on group membership, relationships, networks of influence and support. Bourdieu defines social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.”
  • Cultural capital: forms of knowledge; skill; education; any advantages a person has which give them a higher status in society, including high expectations. Parents provide children with cultural capital, the attitudes and knowledge that makes the educational system a comfortable familiar place in which they can succeed easily.

Thus one can be rich in money but lacking in “cultural capital”, as exemplified by, say, Tony Soprano. Or one can be the exact opposite, as exemplified by, say, me. And “social capital” is something web people should understand right away: if you are two degrees of separation from a big-time lawyer, a famous actor, a powerful CEO, or a major politician, you are rich in social capital. If you have to go to the yellow pages to find a doctor, a 900 number to have someone to talk to, or have nobody to ask to find out how good the local schools are, you’re probably not doing quite as well socially, regardless of your income or culture level.

So which class do you most closely fit into? Or, more importantly to this discussion, which class groups do you typically design for?

I’ll go first.

I come from educated parents but modest means (food stamps aren’t unfamiliar to my family). For much of my youth we couldn’t afford to own fancy things, belong to clubs, travel anywhere exotic, have nice clothes, go to the doctor for anything besides emergencies, or any of the kinds of things most of my middle class friends took for granted. But my young parents were well-educated bohemians who raised my brother and I to be culturally-hip and well-read, and they encouraged our creativity and inquisitiveness. So while we were economically “mid prole” for most of my childhood, culturally I think we had a leg up in the world already. As a result of that upbringing, today I am probably economically middle-class with some cultural leanings into the upper end of that segment, making me essentially “Category X”.

That includes my design sensibility, or for shorthand my “taste”. In the milieu of graphpaper.com (and most of the the sites I link to and who link to me) the generally-accepted ideas of “good” and “bad” design are probably similar to Heller’s. To oversimplify it to the point of caricature, let’s just say chrome logos, marble textures, and drop-shadows = bad; grid systems, ample whitespace, and sans-serif or classic fonts = good. My own work (my design, my artwork, my writing) tends to be targeted to a culturally-sophisticated, design conscious, well-read and well-educated, technologically-savvy, and politically liberal or libertarian audience. I doubt my readership includes many blue-collar laborers, high-school dropouts, religious fundamentalists, elderly retirees, trailer park residents, or pro wrestling fans.

That means that I target a pretty narrow slice of the American class hierarchy, one that is more likely to draw from higher-income, and even more so from highly-educated people. Which is to say, no joke or snobbiness intended, that I probably have an “high class” web site, or probably more accurately a “Category X” web site.

I’m probably not alone in my personal cultural segregation from the rest of America’s taste and design sensibilities. Many of you who read this blog or who participate in online discussions about web design theory are probably also culturally-isolated from what most people think “good design” really means (see those ducks on Part 1? If you can’t understand how people can even tolerate that stuff, much less love it, then you are at least a little out of touch).

How does the insularity of the design community affect how professional web designers approach their jobs? Are we out of touch with America’s class consciousness? Do web site designers pay attention to class at all? Should we? That’s what I’ll be looking into over the next few posts.

Next: Class and Web Design Part 3: As Seen on TV!

15 Responses to Class and Web Design, Part 2: What Class are You?

  1. Being a web designer who majored in — of all things — sociology at Northwestern, I found myself grinning when I read your entry on class and cultural capital. It put me right back in college! Only it’s a subject that I thought would never relate to my job.

    Recently I designed something that was found to be “too formal.” There are other designs I’ve done that the clients decided were overly “professional.” I was a little puzzled by these comments, because don’t people want their website to look like, for example, New York Times or A List Apart?

    My direct manager loves the designs I make, but the upper management does not. Design is such a visual, visceral and communicative thing that I thought it was simply universal, but people’s tastes differ so wildly that it’s impossible to appeal to everyone.

  2. Tight post, Chris. You know I’m no designer, but class is always a consideration when I write even the smallest blog post. (Well, audience is a consideration, and tech audience’s largely hail from the same class. Largely.)

    I think it’s better to think of cultural capital as a pole system, not a linear progression. One could argue that the rise of mass media has made fluency in low culture just as much an asset as your ability to navigate a conversation about Wittgenstein. You have to be able to laterally associate between cultural reference points across the spectrum.

    Or maybe I’m just a bumpkin.

  3. I do like where you’re trying to go with this series, tho’ I still think you’re talking mostly about Taste in a sociological sense and how it influences American class (to wit, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taste_%28sociology%29), not Class directly.

    Class is about social function, not communication. You had to blow class apart in order to get to the tactical components of it and that’s exactly right. It’s what the French did with their Revolution. The idea that, as a designer, the importance an individual is to the social order is a concern of your work is silly. You do, however, design to the components of Class: taste, education, connectedness, wealth, etc.

    Back to the lincolncenter.org argument, nothing about the design of the site should mean anything about class. The function and operation of the institution itself, however, does.

    But I do think what you’re trying to say — that professional designers are within a Class of their own — is important because we do need to be regularly reminded that everyone does not have the same Tastes as us. :D

  4. A, glad you namecheck Fussell’s classic, a slim but outsizedly influential volume that continues to resonate with me down through all these years. (I was just wondering last night, actually, in contemplating the crowd dynamics at a Val Alen Institute presentation, whether his “Class X” was a cop-out or a fair call.)

    B, *very* glad you raise the all-but-unmentionable issue of class, considerations of which are smeared all over UX work, albeit generally in bad faith or in ignorance. We’ve discussed mySpace and Sidekicks and Bluetooth headsets in this context, but I think the time is ripe for a far deeper and wider interrogation of attitudes toward class, and how they are revealed in design and in the response to design.

    So bravo all around. I look forward to more and deeper.

  5. AG: the deeper I go into the subject the more unsteady I get. I’ve got the next three parts cued up, but honestly the more I uncover the more I think this *needs* to be a dialogue. I don’t even come close to having a personal theory or opinion on this, ultimately, but I do know that we should be talking about it.

  6. Steve: Regarding the “pole system” instead of a “linear progression”, well, I think that’s very egalitarian of you and it is in fact how I feel as well. But two things work against that. First, despite working-class pride and all that, it’s a fact that most people on the lower classes aspire to the higher classes. That’s why it’s usually thought of as a ladder. Secondly, a key element of class is education and there’s no way I’ll agree that a shallow, thin education is just as good as a deep and rich one. Class has both superficial and substantive manifestations: Docksiders vs. sneakers is one thing, but I’ll take Wuthering Heights over a Harlequin Romance any day.

  7. Very interesting article indeed! I’ve experienced this first hand and relate to it design-wise just like in my social life. I mingle with different crowds – from musicians, via motorsport fans to educated white collar people and bohemes. One of my clients sell minibuses/vans etc both to major corporations as well as private taxi owners and sports clubs. Appeling to them in printed ads and brochures is easy, but to try and merge all that on the website without knowing who the user is is tough. Incidentally, this is in Norway.

    Thanks, and keep it comin’!

  8. BK, thanks for the Norewegian angle! And yes, you are totally right that because web sites are seen as having a broader and more homogeneous audience than print, the challenges of appealing to different class demographics is flattened out a little.

    Still, some e-commerce sites send out targeted promotions to potential customers, containing links to the web site but where the resulting “landing page” looks entirely different depending on where the user came from. If you received your promo URL from a paper insert in Reader’s Digest you’d get an entirely different home page than if you got your URL from your BusinessWeek daily news email subscription.

  9. I’m curious what you think about this: google reviews of Class. In everyone one I’ve found, the reviewer gladly concludes, perhaps with some feigned reluctance, to be Category X. That is to say, no one says ‘I am a prole’ or ‘I’m thoroughly middle class.’ Why do you think that is?

  10. I think it’s partly because nobody wants to admit to being part of the class system, and partly because more and more Americans are, indeed, moving into Category X. I think consciousness of the tremendous impact of class is the first step to escaping it — so naturally people who are willing to think about Class are more likely to feel as if they, too, have escaped it.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “google reviews of Class”. You mean like book reviews? If so, then yeah, it’s definitely because people who read books about class and post reviews to the internet have moved a little bit away from the system.

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