In the constant pursuit of trying to un-do the paradigms embedded in me by traditional schooling (let’s face it, it’s a fun thing to do), I have recently discovered that style can be as important as, if not more important than, substance. The assumption has always been that “it’s what’s on the inside that matters,” and that nobody should “judge a book by its cover.” However, it appears that for several reasons, what’s on the outside matters quite a lot, and – to jump right into it –
1. We will consistently judge a book by its cover. And by its type, and binding, and cut. Faced with an overwhelming choice of all that is consumable physically (wine), intellectually (books), and emotionally (films), we find it most convenient to judge things by their style. Relating back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (so much for abandoning my traditional schooling) most of us have surpassed our physiological, safety, and belonging needs, and our choices are governed by our esteem and self-actualization aspirations. What is styled well – everything beautiful, sophisticated, and soundly put together – helps us keep ourselves in high esteem and actualize ourselves as persons who actively and intelligently consider their environment.
Essentially: Style counts because we are developed enough as a society to prefer and reward ideas and goods that are more pleasing to the senses and to the mind.
2. We use twitter, and expect ourselves to be able to gain something meaningful from reading tweets. How much substance is in 140 characters? Well, exactly the amount you would expect from 140 characters – not a whole lot. How much style goes into these 140 characters? Very much if you think about it. Choosing what to cut, what to keep; what abbreviations to employ, and which full words to use (showing that you would give up precious space to use them); even what language to use. (French is tough – it requires more words to express an idea than English does. Latin is a favourite among some priests – requires fewer words to express an idea than English does.)
Essentially: When you cut down the substance of a message to the size of a tweet, the style of said tweet gains importance to the same measure that substance is given up. If Euclid were a contemporary of Twitter I would expect him to come up with this exact formula.
3. Creating style improves substance. My younger sister has few grudges against me, but because of me has possibly developed a complex that will prevent her from willingly framing anything in her life (I exaggerate, I hope). Every time she has ever asked for feedback on one of her pieces of art, I would always tell her: “Add a border.” To her it may have sounded like I have a more dramatic case of obsessive compulsive disorder than I admitted to, but to me, framing and bordering was the equivalent of “packaging.” And once something like art is “packaged,” you can ask: is this a complete, contained entity? Is there enough substance to make it stand on its own, or is there too much substance which makes it compete for attention? Is my story fully told and just substantial enough? This is the same with essays, reports, books, films. You style an item in order to give it a frame. You can then also critically evaluate the amount of substance that went into the creation. Styling allows you to see where there is an area of displeasure aesthetically, psychologically, intellectually; here, you may have gone overboard with substance, or left something to be wanting.
Essentially: Creating style makes you re-assess the substance you put into a piece of work. Were we not subjected to using style, our world would be quite unpolished and little of the work we do would be of very high quality.
While making peace with the fact that style is not vain, self-absorbed, or a symbol of neuroticism, but a way to polish and make sense of the contents of the world, we might also consider that all substance becomes style eventually. On a personal level, we collect media and books; these are individual bits of substance and content, but the full collection reveals much about the broad features of our personalities. On a level of epochs, we often will primarily associate the periods of Renaissance or Antiquity with stylistic features: aesthetics, styles, trends, and ways of life. However, smaller ideas, thoughts, arguments, and written works made up the whole picture. These time periods, heavy with ideas of hard-wrought substance, have rolled up into a style in the minds of generations living centuries and millennia later.
In our own time, it is comforting to think that small pieces of truly salient substance can be shamelessly formed with style, since the applied style neither compromises the intrinsic value of the idea nor makes it frivolous. It in fact does the opposite – enhances its value, and makes it, in a word, more substantial.