First, apologies to the young man who stood in front of me at the post office yesterday. He was trying, but not trying too hard. He was going for a slightly updated classic New England collegiate look: blue button down oxford, dark green chinos, killer brown leather boots, 60's-inspired glasses. His hair was parted pretty traditionally, the kind of clipper/scissor combo cut you can get at any modern barbershop. He didn't ask to inspire an article about hair product.
Maybe he was having an off day. We all have them. We apply the goo when your hair's a little too damp, or get a little too much on our fingers and just rub it in anyway. But, all that gunk totally cut his style points in half. His whole head was just screaming "I put stuff in my hair today. You can see it, right?"
Don't be that guy. Don't let product misuse ruin your whole thing. You don't want people to see it. For a natural look, follow these simple techniques, and get on with your day.
1) Don't start in the front. This was post office guy's crucial mistake. Looking right at him, you could see exactly how his hair ended up that way. He put a big dollop on his fingers, and ran them straight through the front of his hairline, right along the scalp, cementing the path of travel of his hand for the rest of the day.
This puts all the product at the bottom of your hair follicles, giving that spike-y bang look that should be left to 1997 high school freshman.
Instead: Place product across your fingers, and rub it around a little to distribute evenly. Then, work your way from the back to the front, spreading the product from the base of your head to to the ends of your hair, working along your part. This gives your hair actual structure, not just weight.
2. You can always add more. Most modern products (at least the ones you should be using) are designed to increase styling ability, not to cement an existing style in place. Don't grab and spread everything you need in one go.
Instead: use all your fingers to add the product in light coats to cover just stuff above your crown. Unless you have long hair, you can probably leave the sides alone. Then, with your hands still sticky, pull it everywhichway until its where you want it.
3. Apply first, style second. If you have short hair that's slightly longer on the top (the classic men's cut), don't try to set that slightly mussed look in from the beginning.
Instead: following rules number one and two, lightly and evenly apply to you hair, and roughly style it. Let it dry for 5-10 minutes, then break up any clumps, pull it up and out, and get the mess. It's never going to be perfect in one go. Concentrate on getting the stuff in there first, and then finalize the look in the mirror after a few minutes, or in the rearview on the way to your night out.