What makes things cool?



What makes something cool? Like a vintage car, or a classic product, or an iconic design? You might say, who knows. There’s just something to them. This thing is totally subjective. But all of those designs you just saw were actually from the same guy -- Raymond Loewy. And once you understand his theory of what makes things cool, you’ll see it everywhere. Raymond Loewy was an industrial engineer who did more than maybe any other person to shape the look of America in the 20th century. His designs are everywhere: logos, trains, buses, kitchens, even outer space. Loewy had a universal theory of cool: “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”— or MAYA. People want to be trendy, but they don’t want to be weird. Loewy’s trick was this: to sell something surprising, make it familiar. To sell something familiar, make it surprising. How does this work in practice? In 1932, Raymond Loewy presented a train design to Pennsylvania Railroad. His big idea was a single, sleek shell for the train the shape of a long bullet. But his initial design was met with great skepticism, so he decided to introduce the idea in stages. His came back with a version that was only slightly more advanced than Thomas the Tank Engine. But his next design was more advanced, and then more advanced... until he finally persuaded the train executives that his original, advanced version was acceptable. This is the MAYA method. He made the surprising feel familiar. There’s scientific evidence to back up these claims. One of the sturdiest findings in psychological history is known as the “mere-exposure” effect. In the 1960s, the psychologist Robert Zajonc conducted an experiment where he showed subjects nonsense words, random shapes, and Chinese characters, and asked participants to pick their favorites. The subjects consistently chose the shapes and words that they'd seen the most. Exposure leads to familiarity and familiarity leads to subconscious preference. There’s even an explanation from evolutionary psychology: If you're a hunter/gatherer trawling a Savannah of Africa and you see a plant or an animal that you recognize, that's a good sign that it hasn't killed you … at least not yet. So we have the “acceptable” part of Raymond Loewy’s theory -- that people naturally gravitate towards familiarity. But what about the “advanced” aspect? There is another powerful idea in psychology called habituation. That means, people get tired of having to see the same thing over and over again, like a vampire movie. The power of familiarity fails when people feel like they are being forced to confront it. Like having to hear that Ed Sheeran song for the one-thousandth time. No! And for that reason, the power of familiarity seems to be strongest when a person is least expecting it. A case study is Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature. Spotify delivers a personalized playlist of 30 new songs every Monday to its users. Initially, the feature was supposed to include entirely new music by new artists. A bug in the algorithm accidentally let through songs that users had already heard before. So, engineers fixed the bug. And to their astonishment, engagement with the feature collapsed. They realized that people trusted new songs when they recognized old ones. To enjoy the surprising music, they needed a dash of the familiar. Raymond Loewy understood combining the new and the old intuitively. One of his last assignments was to help NASA design the interior of one of it's first space stations: Sky Lab. He added creature comforts, like a shower and a dining room table. But his most ingenious idea was to add a small window. A viewing portal of planet Earth. You have surely seen this viewing portal -- it’s in almost every movie about astronauts and space. It’s the perfect manifestation of MAYA: a window to a new world can also show you home. This is "You Are Here", a new video series about the science of everyday life. Tell us what you think in the comments. I'm Derek Thompson, thank you for watching.

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