Occasionally, amidst the rapid rise and fall of trends, fashion and fancy, we are faced with true revolution: paradigm shifts that throw out excess baggage of some kind and usher in new ways of thinking and seeing altogether. The catch is that you need to have the benefit of hindsight to truly measure their effectiveness. With this in mind, I believe that the interaction design community is witnessing an important revolution — an ‘IxD Bauhaus’ of sorts.
I’d like to start with architecture and its recent history, and then compare it with current changes in the way interaction design is being conceived and made. Lastly I’d like to discuss the effects of such a revolution in architecture, and provoke thought on what the implications might be for the design of user experience.
Remembering the Bauhaus: a call to end ornamentation in the built environment
The Bauhaus Movement (1918-1933) was based on a German revival of a purer, honest design representation in architecture, art, typography and product design. Its philosophy celebrated an austere functionalism with little or no ornamentation. It advocated a use of industrial materials and inter-disciplinary methods and techniques. The Bauhaus aesthetic and beliefs were influenced by and derived from techniques and materials employed especially in industrial fabrication and manufacture. Artists included Paul Klee, Wassilli Kandinsky, and Feininger. Architects and designers included Mies Van der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Lazlso Moholy-Nagy and several others.
“The Bauhaus was not concerned with the formulation of timebound, stylistic concepts, and its technical methods were not ends in themselves. It was created to show how a multitude of individuals, willing to work concertedly but without losing their identity, could evolve a kinship of expression in their response to the challenges of the day. Its aim was to give a basic demonstration of how to maintain unity in diversity, and it did this with the materials, techniques, and form concepts germane to its time. It was this method of approach that was revolutionary…”
This movement was a true revolution because prior to its time, the built environment had bloated in stimuli, caused by an excess of decor and ‘pastry-work’. As early as 1908, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos had said that architectural ornament was criminal, and his essay on that topic would become foundational to Modernism and eventually trigger the careers of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto,Mies van der Rohe and Gerrit Rietveld and other Bauhaus masters. The Modernists embraced these equations—form follows function, ornament is crime—as moral principles, and they celebrated industrial artifacts like steel water towers and other ‘Machine Age’ construction as brilliant and beautiful examples of plain, simple design integrity.
The Bauhaus liberated construction from the excessive need for ornamentation as a means of expression, be it in art, typography, graphic design or architecture. One of the main objectives of the Bauhaus was to unify art, craft, and technology. It freed itself from the shackles of historical ‘styling’ and attempted to create a fresh order of primary principles. Such radical thinking enabled a celebration of the purity and honesty of structure and looking for truth in things be it on a 2-dimensional canvas or a building. Anyone who’s marvelled at the Barcelona Pavillion or the Barcelona Chair (both designed by Van der Rohe) has experienced the essence of what the movement stood for.
The Bauhaus’s philosophy was that form should follow function and all other distractions and decoration should be avoided. It wanted space to be experience for its purity, stripped off all the ‘dirt’ and clutter of decor. This is something that’s been happening recently in the field of visual interaction design.
What’s the ‘IxD Bauhaus’ about?
If you’re the kind of interaction designer who starts getting a gradient-itch or delights in making buttons look like glass – think again. The times they are a-changin’.
There was a time when our sense of ‘modern’ in the user-interface was driven by concepts like these –
Examine the words used to describe such a concept – “… a rich palette of visual surfaces for the media player and taskbars, giving XP a unique, consistent design language that challenges the traditional digital media experience. Analog-style, “rubberized” buttons on the skin of Windows Media Player offer classic, intuitive navigation and avoid the hyper-technical feel of other online players. Brushed aluminum textures, rich colors, and dimensional lighting add a satisfying tactile quality to the user’s online interactions, lending the experience a sense of the real.” The term often used to describe this kind of UI is skeumorphic. If pre-industrial revolution construction suffered from ‘nature-envy’, skeumorphic visual user experiences suffer from ‘object-envy’.
To quote an explanation from FastCompany’s article on it – Skeuomorphic apps take pains to reference or mimic physical, real-world features in their user interfaces. Apple is the current king of this design style, enshrining skeuomorphics in its Human Interface Guidelines: “Whenever possible, add a realistic, physical dimension to your application. The more true to life your application looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it.”
It’s tough to compete with a force as dominant as Apple, in the realm of beautiful user-experiences, but the release of the Windows Phone 7 design guideline (codenamed: Metro), an impending revolution has been made official. The new IxD Bauhaus’ basic principle is that ‘Form follows Data’.
Windows Phone’s new design language is inspired by print in the digital age. Let’s examine the words used by their team (extracted from Mike Kruzeniski’s blog) to describe their UI design principles –
- Clean, Light, Open and Fast
- Alive in Motion
- Celebrate Typography
- Content, Not Chrome
- Authentically Digital
One could almost use these words to describe Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavillion, for example –
- Clean, Light, Open and Fast (Open space, pure exposed beautiful material)
- Alive in Motion (through albeit static sweeping horizontal lines in the design language)
- Celebrate Typography (celebrating structure – making it boldly present)
- Content, Not Chrome (no decor, just beautiful clean spaces)
- Authentically Digital (authentically physical)
There are so many examples that are beginning to exemplify this philosophy, some better than others. Examples of this ‘IxD Bauhaus’ (to name a few) are –
Some design their visual interaction with fiercely reductionist vigor. Others still show hints of a gradient itch. The revolution however, is definitely underway. Increasingly, our apps and OS’s hint on letting us focus on our lives and tasks and ‘getting the job done’ by focussing on ‘content rather than chrome’.
Increasingly, our apps and OS’s hint on letting us focus on our lives and tasks and ‘getting the job done’ by focussing on ‘content rather than chrome’.
This is an exciting and most welcome change in visual interaction design. It is also a huge challenge for designers, content-providers and business groups. Inorder to see the revolution thrive and prosper – all these interest groups need to work even more closely. We need to learn lessons from history and not make the same mistakes.
The Good, the Bad, and the Boxy: What can visual interaction designers learn from the Bauhaus?
The point of this article is not to acknowledge revolution. That’s been done already and perhaps more eloquently. This stream of thought would like to probe the consequences of such a ‘reductivist’ philosophy and draw parallel lessons from history.
The Bauhaus movement had immeasurable value in shaping modern architecture and design to what it is today, but it also faced severe criticism. After living in them, or owning Bauhaus furniture – several found them to be too impersonal, sterile and devoid of any emotional value. All houses started to look vaguely similar, offices became cubicle graveyards while Bauhaus masterpiece-inspired furniture design knock-offs looked tacky and boring. Since the moved was fuelled by World War II and an industrial wave of mass production it killed ‘craft’ and ensured a sameness in the objects we started seeing around us. This was both good and bad.
Jacques Tati’s ‘Playtime’ (1967) was a brilliant cinematic critique of the ‘glass and steel’ forest that modern life had become as a result of the Bauhaus.
Lets quickly summarize why the Bauhaus was important for design history, but was frequently criticized in people’s lives –
- Not all material is worthy of celebration, not all content is beautiful too.
The Bauhaus movement was a huge challenge not only to designers but also to the people providing engineering, construction and material services. Everyone needed to up their game in order to make a beautiful chair, poster or building. Any compromise in quality ensured that material/content was revealed as poor in quality and tacky in appearance.In today’s times business owners, content-providers and other interest groups need to do some serious soul searching to ensure that their content alone will carry their online experience through? Just like in the Bauhaus movement, bad quality wood looked tolerable when it was decorated or concealed. The moment one stripped them off decor – it exposed nothing but ugliness.
- Beauty is in the details, construction, and structure.A bad visual experience will now be judged, not by the beautiful ‘glassiness’ of its buttons, but by its inherent structure and little details that are made to manifest from inside out. Interaction designers and developers alike need to collaborate more closely to ensure that experiences are built inside-out, rather than designers applying ‘skins’ to a detached user-experience development platform. Wireframing experiences in close collaboration with developers and content-providers, detailing points of interaction without applying visual clutter will suddenly become a bottom-line in interaction design.
- Ensuring familiarity without losing brand value and character.
Visual interaction designers will now be faced with the stiff challenge of creating identity, character and uniqueness without the easier palette of ‘decor’. A failure to create differences could lead to familiar ‘Bauhaus problems’ of sameness and monotony.
- Industrial processes drove the Bauhaus, software development processes are driving the ‘IxD Bauhaus’.
Mass production, industrial fabrication, pre-cast components and material technology spurred the Bauhaus movement to fruition in its time. Today, we need to acknowledge that the reductionist IxD revolution is being caused by a larger understanding that ‘apps’ might be the way forward in a ‘Cloud’ computing world. Designers, engineers and developers would need to ensure that pre-cast components were designed well, almost as ‘toolboxes’ in the design of user experiences so that parts were repetitive without being too rigid. Visual interaction designers would need to think big and small simultaneously – keeping overall architecture in mind while resolving smaller details.
- When all facades are glass, its hard to know where the door is
Knowing when and how to provide cues for interaction becomes even more crucial for the design of a good user experience. Windows Phone does this through minimal, yet intuitive animations that delight and inform users. Other app-experiences and platforms need to think of their own ways of solving this problem. Since buttons need no longer look like buttons, designers need to ensure clarity in design language using color, typography, or other material to differentiate interactive elements from static ones.
Conclusion: How much of less is more?
The main question here is not when or where the ‘IxD Bauhaus’ movement began. Or if it exists at all.
It is more important to recognize this reductionist behavior as a refreshingly welcome change in how we plan and design our visual interactive experiences. While we can no longer conceal mediocre interaction design behind the facade of decoration and fluff, several questions remain unanswered. How much can we reduce, without compromising on usability , cognition and emotion? How much can we strip experiences of cues (formerly done through decor) without making them sterile?
Even though the movement is in its early days in mobile, table and desktop visual interaction design, its implications will be broad and deep, regardless of commercial performance. A lot of the movement’s success depends on how users accept such a reductionist approach to visual interactive experiences where there are many hidden cues and authentic digital behavior. It remains to be seen how users respond to the lack of familiarity in the new UX metaphors that were formerly mimicking the physical world.
We all like personalization, customization and a feeling of ownership of the objects and services that we interact with and consume. The Windows Phone Design Team has done a great job of showing the user their relevant content on an interactive start-screen experience. How will others respond, without setting off another clone assembly line that mimics rather than acts authentic? While personally praying for the success of such a school of thought and action, there are hurdles that we need to be clear about and prepare ourselves for that would rush to quash the revolution at the first signs of duress.
If the Bauhaus movement in the early part of last century failed to resonate with users for reasons that we’ve discussed – can we as designers prepare ourselves to meet the challenges ahead?