To those of you who know me as a champion of evidence-based communication and information design, such a view may be surprising. But it is precisely because of the overwhelming evidence that I take this view.
In almost everything we do we partake in the biological and social rituals of display; clothes, makeup, cars, houses, office buildings, documents, web sites and so on all manifest the ritual of display. We want people to know who we are or who we would like them to think we are. Display rituals are part of life, not an add-on optional feature.
Visit the web sites of any champions of the austerely functional and you will find both eye candy and style, or at least attempts at both.
The problem, if indeed there is one, is the inappropriate use of ritual display. But even that construction of the problem is wrong. Ritual display has at least two sides to it: the skill, craft and sensitivity with which the ritual is performed, and the skill, judgement, and sensitivity with which the ritual is observed or read. These don’t always match, and the fact that they don’t is not dysfunctional. The whole point of ritual display is to persuade, but equally the whole point of observing or reading ritual display is to decide what is or is not persuasive.
Observe the ritual displays of courtship in animals. Not every display persuades every potential mate. This is not a symptom of dysfunctional ritual, it’s a symptom of functional selection. So too in human social activity. Some brands are persuasive to buyers, some are not. Our skills at selecting products are no less honed than our skills at selecting mates. Nor are they necessarily perfectly honed, as we all discover to our cost. But the game of display and persuasion, followed by observation, reading and selection goes on because it is in our nature.
Seen from this perspective, accusations that some communication is mere eye candy or style may well be true from the observer’s point of view. Part of what we try to read from ritual display is whether or not the person or organization performing the ritual is genuine or not. Will their performance live up to their promise, or are they simply dissembling—a pack of lying bastards, as an Australian might say? But the answer to this so-called problem is not to remove the eye candy or style and deliver the unvarnished truth. The problem is matching promise with performance, and making the ritual of display persuasive with believable eye candy and style.