One of Doberman's best designers tells us about her quest for inspiration away from Google's Material Design and digital dullness.
Over the years, I’ve had a recurring conversation with designer peers about the balance between expression and function.
When I began my studies in digital design at Hyper Island in Stockholm 2008, I realised that there was a specific look to almost everything that was created in the industry. At the time it was called Web 2.0 and it was apparently The Sh*t. I quickly came to realise that the aesthetic didn’t resonate with me, and as a result, I eventually decided not to pursue a career as a visual designer.
Instead, I turned to UX and interaction design. I wanted to be able to tune my solutions to the needs of individual users, but also create something unique that the world had never seen before—rather than adapting my visual expression to fit into a box and look the same as everyone else’s.
I thought fitting into a box was simply the definition of being a visual designer—you are not supposed to have an individual style in a profession with a tradition of creating functional and user friendly objects, products, and services. Of course I understood that trends change over time, so it wasn’t the specific bevel and emboss effects that informed my decision, but rather a notion that I would have to constantly adapt my creative expression to what was considered cool that specific year.
What I was seeking at the time felt more like the work of an artist than that of a designer. I believe the established definitions differentiating design from art is just that: art is all about expression, the self, relying on instinct and being emotional. Design on the other hand is centred around function, solving problems for others, and making decisions informed by data and being rational.
Whilst accepting that fact, I still think there are perspectives and methods of the artist that can benefit the designer in order to get inspired and unlock one’s creativity. Over a decade later, I still find myself asking the same questions: How can I as a designer still pursue an individual expression? How can I better trust my own intuition to get there?
A Closer Look at the Bigger Problem
“The designer doesn’t have a style,
he doesn’t have a personal style.
He shouldn’t have a personal style.
I humbly suggest that a designer shouldn’t have a personal style.
Because he gives a style to a product.”
-Art in Design by Bruno Munari
A popular strategy for finding inspiration as a designer today is to turn to newsletters and trend reports—which can lead to most branding projects looking pretty much the same. I am definitely not alone in making this observation. The term 'AirSpace' was coined by Kyle Chayka in The Verge article 'Welcome to Airspace' from 2016, where he describes a phenomenon of aesthetic gentrification, where digital products like Foursquare and Airbnb leads to cafés and apartments looking the same all over the world.
Chayka argues that “The connective emotional grid of social media platforms is what drives the impression of AirSpace. If taste is globalised, then the logical endpoint is a world in which aesthetic diversity decreases.”
Another impetus for the creative draining and streamlining of aesthetics can be the environment in which one works. One big challenge in the field of digital design is the two very different mindsets of design and engineering. The first visual designer at Google, Douglas Bowman, summarises how this ultimately led him to leave the company in his famous blog post 'Goodbye, Google': “When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems...Data in your favour? Ok, launch it."
In some cases, the obsession with measurability eventually paralysed the company and “prevented it from making any daring design decisions.”
The seed of the problem that Bowman had identified has most recently manifested itself in the rise of design systems. Google’s Material Design is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it’s a great tool for helping designers put their efforts in the right places. Instead of reinventing the wheel with each new project, designers can use best practice for standard elements like navigation and sign-up flows, and thus spend the bulk of their time on the unique and emotional aspects of our work.
But on the other hand, if you don’t have access to your emotions or creativity and aren’t working in an organisation that recognises those values, you risk creating something generic and boring when you work directly from an established design system.
The scary thing is that this trust in data and rationale has trickled down to all aspects of our society. The rise of New Public Management—a well-known term in European welfare systems where institutions like schools and hospitals are supposed to become more 'businesslike' in order to improve their efficiency—has been criticised for quite some time now.
In her 2018 book The Renaissance of the Unmeasurable ('Det omätbaras renässans'), Swedish philosopher Johanna Bornemark provokes that “we are living in the age of measurability and we solve our problems by splitting up, quantify and calculate.”
She argues for a reinforced balance between sense and sensibility, or “Ratio and Intellectus” as the renaissance philosopher, theologician and astronomer Nicolaus Cusanus called it.
Bornemark and Cusanus argue that we humans have two ways of approaching the unknown: ratio and intellectus. Ratio is our controlling, calculating and supervising skills, while intellectus is our ability to listen inwards and reflect upon the things that we don’t know. So why does this matter? As Bornemark sounds the alarm “What we see is a growing faith, even reliance, to calculating methods and rationalities that encompasses all aspects of life” she points out the risks of outsourcing all of society’s problem solving on computers.
I mean, that is after all what they are made to do, and if we continue to value Ratio higher than Intellectus, one could draw the conclusion that the human sense is just a flawed version of the machine’s.
So how might we strengthen our intellects, explore our sensibility and dare to rely on our intuition in order to be creative?
At the turn of the 19th century, Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint used spiritualism and seances to create the world’s first abstract art. She was exploring complex spiritual ideas, previously never seen by the human eye. During her career she stated that her work couldn’t be displayed to the public until 20 years after her death. The world simply wasn’t ready. More than a 100 years later, her work has been featured in exhibitions all over the world and received massive attention and praise.
One tool that af Klint used to create her amazing paintings was 'automatic drawing,' a practice by which she would channel Higher Powers, conceptualising invisible phenomenon both of the inner and outer worlds. She experienced being directed by a great force that would literally guide her hand. She wrote in her notebook: “I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”
Another advocate of shutting down the rational part of one’s brain in order to unlock creativity is Julia Cameron, author of creativity bible The Artist’s Way. In her book, Cameron describes different methods for exploring “A spiritual path to higher creativity”, one of them being 'The Morning Pages', where you start every day with writing three pages, by hand, about whatever comes to mind.
There are equivalents to these methods in digital design too—such as 'crazy 8', which prompts designers to divide a paper into 8 squares and invent a different solution to a given problem in each square. Both Brian Eno’s 'Oblique Strategies' and David Bowie’s 'verbasizer' are other examples of similar techniques, where constraints and elements of randomness is intended to break creative blocks and encourage lateral thinking.
The art of letting go in order to be able to come up with a multitude of options is a super powerful and helpful tool when feeling bogged down by research findings, metrics and business goals.
Where do we go from here?
In Dan Saffer’s blog post 'The End of Design As We Know It' from 2014 he reminds us that “design isn’t just about problem solving; it’s about creating a more humane future.? The truly groundbreaking design solutions aren’t always the most rational and expected. To be able to access and trust one’s intuition and emotions in order to create something innovative that moves society in a direction that benefits humanity is one of our most valuable abilities as humans.
Design critic Alice Rawsthorn, author of Design as an attitude (2018) makes a similar point:
“Design is an agent of change, which can help us to make sense of what is happening and turn it to our advantage.”
Machines will never be able to intentionally break conventions and push boundaries in the direction we desire in the way that humans can. Questioning the established traditions and rules is a distinctly human responsibility. I truly believe that if we don’t tap into our Intellectus, our imagination, we will find ourselves permanently in an AirSpace world where everything is sterile, generic and frictionless.
So what are some strategies that we as designers can use today in order to take advantage of our humanness and sensibility?
A few methods I like are:
'Automatic design' a la Hilma af Klint
Instead of focusing on creating the one perfect solution to a specific design problem, go for quantity and push yourself to create as many different solutions as possible. Let go of right and wrong and just create, then zoom back out and look at your options with sober, rational eyes.
Mandatory alone time to consume art
This is another of Julia Cameron’s methods, that I find surprisingly enjoyable. I thought I hated going to museums until I tried doing it by myself. To be alone with art and be able to dwell upon what excites you (and skip the parts you’re not interested in) without judgement from others is truly liberating.
Show over tell
One of the greatest things about working with design is that your output is tangible—take advantage of that! Instead of trying to convince a client of a design strategy by verbalising your idea, show them. Good design solutions often speak for themselves. If it feels right to you, it likely will resonate with your clients as well.
Trust your instincts and dare to post-rationalise
A colleague of mine that I truly admire practices this quite often—instead of coming up with your design rationale beforehand, feel free to make up your argumentation afterwards. Go for what instinctively feels exciting and come up with the reasons why later.
Sanna Wickman is senior interaction designer for Doberman.