How product designers can learn from the last 100 years of architecture.
From the early 90s through the 2010s, the emerging need to make digital software accessible to the masses propelled software designers, penned “UX designers” by Don Norman, to explore and develop focused design patterns that were functional and simple. Through heavy reductionism, user journeys were made to be as streamlined as possible, and the sole purpose of the interface was to guide users onto the next step of the journey.
In essence, software designers used Modernism as a starting point.
Louis Sullivan, the American architect often hailed as the father of modernism, famously professed “form follows function.” This function-first mentality can be seen echoed throughout early stages of architecture-adjacent design fields, including industrial and software design. As an example, see some parallels between industrial designer Dieter Rams and user experience professional Steve Krug (can you guess which quote is which?):
“Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.”
“Less, but better.”
“Good design is innovative. Good design must be useful. Good design is aesthetic design. Good design makes a product understandable. Good design is honest.”
“Making every page or screen self-evident is like having good lighting in a store: it just makes everything seem better.”
Though each of them resides in different fields of design, they are voicing the same Modernist perspective.
So if we are to recognize the foundation of software design as Modernism, what parallels can we see in the progression of architectural history and the state of software design now?
1. The emergence of design systems and design manifestos.
As Modernism came into the limelight, architects began documenting their logic and rationale into sets of guidelines. The most famous of these Modernist guidelines was French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s “Five Points in Architecture.”
His “Five Points” manifested perfectly in 1931 into the Villa Savoye, a small home in the outskirts of Paris . The points were as follows:
- Pilotis —the column grid
- The free plan — the absence of supporting walls on the ground floor
- The free design of the façade — separating the exterior of the building from its structural function
- Strip Window
- Roof Garden
Similarly, Google, led by interface designer Matias Duarte, released Material Design in 2014. Material Design draws inspiration from paper and ink, but expands on its capability — freeing it from the limitations of physical space. It utilizes card motifs with well-documented and specific rules for grid, depth, and motion that clearly documented and the most widely used digital design system to date.
Many companies and brands are now scrambling to develop their own design systems and languages with reusable components, in order to unify and expedite their design process.
2. Reactionary design.
The “Brutalist Web” refers to the growing abundance of web sites that actively reject standard UX practices and UI patterns.
However, the “Brutalist Web” is quite the unfortunate misnomer. The architectural Brutalist movement was the result of an over-engineering and execution of Modernist design systems. Brutalist architecture’s function and emphasis on logic was so overvalued that its form was left to the wayside — along with its humanity.
Notice the heavy repetition and pattern in the above images. The Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv has each unit repeating endlessly, feeling robotic and inhuman. Likewise, the Amazon Prime Video page features identical looking result modules streaming down the page.
By understanding Brutalism as simply Modernism with a lack of humanity, in actuality, the “Brutalist Web” is an incorrect title. While architectural Brutalism was an exaggeration of its predecessor, the “Brutalist Web” is a reaction to its predecessor. In this way, the “Brutalist Web” is more akin to Post-Modernism — not Brutalism.
Post-Modernist Robert Venturi is infamous for flipping Mies Van Der Rohe’s Modernist mantra “Less is more” into “Less is a bore.” Post-Modernism rejected the very calculated Modernist foundations in logic and rationale, and instead opted to be funny, warm, and engaging. Compare Dezeen describing Post Modernism and Xtian Miller on Medium describing the “Brutalist Web” (again, can you guess which quote is which?):
“For Venturi and Scott Brown, the garish neon, oversized signage, and incessant frontality of the casinos were not to be looked down upon as kitsch.”
“It carries a certain honesty over designing for the sake of beauty. This could mean going abstract, incorporating clashing or vibrating colors, extreme typeface styles, awkward spacing and positioning, uncompromising and unwieldy imagery — anything that would feel out of place on a conventional website.”
“The extent of creativity in abstract design is unmatched because it focuses on feelings instead of logic, and the reaction or emotion one may have prior to getting information.”
“The historical quotations of this architecture … were meant to provoke, for sure.”
Post-Modernism peaked and faded in the 80’s, but is still hotly debated to this day. It is hated or loved, as intended by its creators, and I suspect the “B̶r̶u̶t̶a̶l̶i̶s̶t̶ Post-Modernist Web” will be too.
The future is convergent.
Seeing these parallels in software design and architecture, how can we start to see the future of software design unfold? Technological breakthroughs in construction techniques, physical hardware, and 3d modeling software have all pushed architecture to its new frontier — which is becoming increasingly digital & interactive.
If the future of architecture is becoming digital, then the future of digital will be architectural. We can already see the evolution beginning to happen:
1. Interactive 3D visualizations on the web with Three.js and Unity.
2. Interactive and collaborative AR and VR environments.
3. Integrated interfaces & physical spaces.