Last week, on the 26th of November, Graphic Design Festival Scotland kicked off with its usual lineup of creative industry rockstars at the all-day conference TopForm. Amongst the line-up was Austrian-born, New York-based designer, Stefan Sagmeister, who was perhaps the most notable name.
This is the third time I’ve seen one of Sagmeister’s talks so I knew the drill, I knew exactly what to expect and I already had my hackles up. The thing is, there are two types of designers in the world. There are the ones that believe in the pragmatism of modernist tradition; think strict grids, Helvetica and Univers and Mies van der Rohe’s impeccable straight line architecture. And there are designers that champion self-expression and beauty like Neville Brody, Seb Lester’s ornate hand lettering, Charles Jencks’s whimsical ‘Gardens of Cosmic Speculation’ in Edinburgh and well... Sagmeister himself. I think you can probably see where this is going.
Being a fervent supporter of “Team Modernists”, I was prepared for another passionate yet, in my eyes, self-indulgent defence of beauty, and, in turn, I had my arguments ready. I had heard the same arguments against the pragmatism of modernist aesthetics and seen the same examples used to validate these, and this time was no different. Sagmeister’s talk directly referenced modernist staples; such as Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe, it also heavily featured images of modernist architecture.
Now, this is where it gets tricky. Yes, Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe were proponents of a borderline extreme minimalism, and, yes, modernist architecture is now widely regarded as a failure, but let’s look closer at the examples given. Sagmeister specifically uses the example of social housing failures to illustrate his point, much like Charles Jencks who, at the time of the implosion of the notorious Pruitt Igoe estate outside of Detroit, boldly proclaimed ‘the death of modernism’. But exactly how much of a failure was on the side of architecture and specifically modernist aesthetics?
It’s undeniable that the Pruitt Igoe estate had major architectural flaws, but it’s equally true that it’s impossible to detach it’s demise from a political context. The fact is that the Pruitt Igoe represents not just the death of modernism, but the death of any form of welfare estate and public housing in America. To ignore this is also to overlook the impact and effects of structural racism in the greater Detroit & St. Louis region.
At the end of it’s days the housing estate failed, not because people were unhappy to live there or because they didn’t like the look of it. They were forced to live there, in fact in its early days people even reported being happy and proud to live there. However, a new Social Housing Act, passed only a few years later by the US Government, effectively put a nail in the coffin of social housing in America. From this, came a significant shift of responsibility of upkeep of the estate to the tenants and away from the state. That’s what ultimately sealed it’s fate, the fact that modernist buildings had a significant cost to upkeep and that funding for this was removed; leaving the tenants that not only lacked the financial means to maintain the estate, but also who lacked the knowledge on how to do so adequately.
So, I sat there quietly mumbling my counter arguments to myself, tried to reconcile the fact that as a Graphic Designer I’m very passionate about beauty and aesthetics, but as a User Experience designer I’m expected to concern myself almost exclusively about functionality and usability. And this has always been a major point of contention for me personally. Why can’t UX designers and graphic designers ever sit at the same table? Why must we strive to keep this long-outdated dichotomy of form vs function? The impulse to make us pick a side bothers me, not because I’m ultimately forced to prioritise one over the other, but because it’s just factually incorrect. There has never truly been an argument for one over the other, from it’s very inception form and function have gone hand in hand, not against one another.
In every UX designer’s bookshelf, you’ll likely find a copy of “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman, widely regarded as the textbook on matters of usability and the importance of user-centered design. But you may or may not find the criminally underrated follow up to it, “Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things”, in which Don Norman explicitly states that he very much took for granted the power and importance of emotion in design.
He goes on to expose in detail the key role of emotion in facilitating fast decision making in our brains. “Is it a friend or is it going to eat me?” fear is an emotional response that triggers a very real, physiological process that has ensured the survival of mankind, for instance. What may be surprising to most, is that this was also thoroughly backed by scientific data and experiments proving that aesthetically pleasing objects actually perform better.
And this makes perfect sense if we think about User Experience and Digital Design. It’s becoming more and more evident that a customers’ experience of a website or digital product is becoming the primary touchpoint between consumers and brands. UX is branding and branding for digital products must take user experience into consideration.
So while I sat there, listening to Sagmeister’s passionate defence of beauty, I realised that we were actually all on the same team. Funnily enough, the talk ended in a particularly emotional rendition of a song, that the designer had asked his favourite band to compose specially for the Graphic Design Festival Scotland talk. The designer requested that the audience sing along to his tune and that, in order for this exercise to work, we’d have to really mean it, as if we were singing happy birthday to a relative and you wanted them to know how much you loved them. So we did. A crowd composed of young graphic designers, students, industry veterans, UX designers, animators, art students, maybe even some developers and business folk. We all sang it together, and it was beautiful and most of all, memorable.
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