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.