Some Vernacular Design Principles (& their application today)

The Spectacular Vernacular

When graphic designers hear the word “vernacular,” we often think of quaint hand-painted signs or old-fashioned candy wrappers. But vernacular design is more than a collection of quotable styles and false nostalgia — it is a systematic method for creation that can guide us toward more sustainable practices. Systems thinking has become extremely important in contemporary design (and a more general acceptance that we are both designing systems and designing for systems has emerged) and those systems requiring the least resources will best serve design on its path toward sustainability. Vernacular design offers a valuable model as its aim is accomplishing the most with the least.

Cover of “How Buildings Learn” — 1994, Penguin

Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn is an in-depth examination of the concepts of vernacular building. First printed in 1994, How Buildings Learn provides a careful dissection of historic, cultural architecture in America. Brand has had a lifelong impact on progressive thinking and the sustainability movement through the Whole Earth Catalog (which he helped found in 1968), the first Hacker’s Conference (1984), and the Long-Now foundation (1996). He has at times been a soldier, hippie, observer, critic, organizer, philosopher, and nerd of the highest degree. Because of his varied interests, Brand approaches the vernacular with a scholarly rather than aesthetic view.

Mr. Stewart Brand himself.

In Brand’s more academic view, the vernacular process (which he also refers to as “adaptive building”) is a systematic framework for evolving concepts. A culture steadily culminates these frameworks over time. Traditions subsequently arise allowing vernacular designers to reuse the invented forms and methods for common, everyday (design?) tasks. Contemporary design typically looks for new (or novel?) or wholely unique solution to a given problem, which is counter-productive to creating traditions.

The vernacular’s evolutionary model is predominantly based on Constraint. The key sub-constraints in my thinking today are Durability are Thrift. These same principles applied to the modern-day practice of design offer concrete, actionable ways for design to move forward towards the sustainable and the better.

The Principles


Big timbers for framing were commonly used in places like northern Europe and North America where wood was plentiful and easy to work with.

Indigenous builders use local culture and materials to guide their processes instead of years of formal schooling. The constraint of locality may limit “choices” of formal elements, materials, and size to vernacular builders, but making these choices inside the presented constraints allows for innovation to take place outside initial expectations. Before the industrial revolution, around 200 materials were used in the building trades worldwide. Most of those materials were the same nearly everywhere: wood, straw, brick, stone and earth. Even with such a limited array of materials, widely different uses and forms evolved in different locations. Specifying boundaries does not have to limit options.

All of these sites used some variation of the Drupal CMS (as of 2009) — 1 system, nearly infinite potential outcomes.

As a practicing designer, accepting constraints can make choices easier. When you don’t have 10,000 options, you can act quickly and confidently. The web offers limited languages for web development — PHP, MySQL, Javascript, Flash, CSS, HTML (to name a few) — yet each year the boundaries of what can be accomplished with the same technology expand. Specific CMS frameworks — like Wordpress, Indexhibit, Joomla, or Drupal — end up being capable of powering vastly different types and designs of websites from the same basic code and modules. These ideas are just as applicable to print design. In fact, we already accept many constraints in our contemporary design practice: paper sizes (how many letter-size jobs have you done recently? — or A4 jobs for European designers) and ink quantities and colors (CMYK, 2-color jobs) being examples.

Constraints play a large part in sustainability. (However, sustainability itself should be the most important constraint on the design decisions we make.) We can simply limit ourselves to only the materials that meet our definitions of sustainable. But instead of simply making the “sacrifice” to use less ink or only using fully recycled paper, we should be inspired to develop new systems of printing and designing in which waste is no longer even an issue. William Mcdonough and Michael Braungart offer a method of book printing in Cradle to Cradle that allows both the pages and the ink of a book to be 100% re-made into another book. A google search shows plenty of other possible choices (from solventless printing to waste-derived fiber sources for paper) we could be making, too. One advantage we have today over our vernacular brethren is that our information gathering is no longer tied to locality. We can find out about new, fanciful solutions and materials from anywhere and everywhere.


Indigenous buildings — whether Viking longhouses, Amish barns, or American bungalows — aim to get the most building for the least material, money, and time. A building starts with something small and necessary and is only added to as money, time, and need allow.

The Baltimore rowhouse is a good example of thrifty architecture. Maximum squarefootage, minimum footprint, minimum materials.

We have lost sight of this in contemporary design. We often seek the cheapest solutions monetarily, but we don’t always seek the all-around least wasteful solutions. This is partially because the economy of scale in many modern processes actually encourage waste. It’s often cheaper to print or fabricate more than you need than risk running out of something (of course, we often fail to properly estimate the quantity we need in the first place). Emerging print-on-demand services like Lulu, Blurb, or Newspaper Club allow the making of short runs of books or magazines at an increasingly affordable cost.

We can also be thrifty with ideas and problem-solving, not just materials. Knowing when to spend resources on new, untested ideas, and when to use something old, reliable, and cheap is part of the sustainable designer’s job. This was also a main component of the vernacular builder’s toolkit. Many web-based projects use this mentality. There are many modules, plugins, libraries, and frameworks for doing all sorts of basic design/build tasks in software and web development that are constantly repurposed and built upon. Visual and material design would be well suited to be treated similarly.


The long lifespan of buildings is part of what allows them to grow, adapt, and evolve. With that comes consideration of material and maintenance. Cape Cod houses would never have had additions put on if the main core of the building always needed constant, constly repair because of perishable parts.

Most of the materials used in vernacular building practices are by their very nature durable: stone and large timbers. Ephemeral materials (such as straw, thatch, or wooden shingles) are used in ways and in places that allow them to show their wear and provide for easy repair and replacement. Some mainly aesthetic choices now made in current homes were once made for issues of durability, longevity and common sense — cheap brick is kept weather resistant by stuccoing and hazard from fire is reduced by installing metal roofing.

Durability in graphic design is as much about the longevity of our systems as the materials in our objects. Design processes should be long lasting and reusable. Chosen materials should last as long as the intended lifespan of an item. Barns and rowhouses should be made of durable goods, while a candy bar wrapper should not. Why use permanent plastics and foils in the manufacture of an item intended for immediate disposal?

A wall being made of rock makes sense from a durability point of view. Disposable bottles and wrappers being made of equally durable materials (nearly indestructible plastic and metal foils) does not.

Think about the quantity of “disposable” objects we consume everyday: cheap paperback books, coffee cups, pounds upon pounds of junk mail (not to mention most low cost clothing, appliances, and electronics). Many of these things pass through the hands of a designer before they make it to the hands of the user or consumer. Our job for the future will be to question the materials from which the objects are made — in terms of meeting the durability requirements for the object itself — and whether the piece can be dematerialized further, or even questioning an object or projects very existence.

A Comparison — the principles at work

The Cape Cod house (or whale house) of New England (Brand’s vernacular principles) compared to the mid 2000's Walker re-branding, Walker Expanded (vernacular principles at work in a contemporary setting).

The Cape Cod house is characterized by a low, broad frame and a steep, pitched roof with end gables, and a large central chimney that all fireplaces in the house share. Also referred to as a whale house, the Cape Cod’s form is tied to location and tradition — its shape, materials, etc., were influenced by the whalers in New England, the building ideals they brought with them from England, and the stormy weather and landscape of coastal New England itself. Local materials and rudimentary technology were used in the construction (the constraint of what was durable and readily available). Cape Cods almost always started life as simple, large-enough boxes with sloped roofs to keep out wind, rain, and snow (constraint of form). They were clad in easily replaceable clapboard and shingles (again, attention paid to the durability of materials in use). These initial structures were quick and cheap to build and maintain (thrifty in money and time). Over time inhabitants added on to their houses. As this happened, predictable “modules” for expansion began to recur. Future expansion of homes then happened in predictable ways based on the success of common cultural practices. The buildings “evolved” over time based on the needs of the occupants, available resources, and constraints of local materials and cultural acceptance.

All images © the Walker

The Walker Art Museum identity, Walker Expanded, is a comparable example from contemporary design. Walker Expanded consists of patterns and word strings that are assembled at the designer’s discretion. The systematic, adaptive nature of the identity is very similar to the vernacular model presented by the Cape Cod house. There are constraints to the size, typeface, selected words, and the color palette, but if design choices fit into the template described by these stipulations, anything goes. Every time a piece is needed a new configuration or pattern can be tested. Created patterns that are deemed successful are kept and used again in subsequent designs — like the standard whale house additions that achieved cultural acceptance. The standard, repetitive nature of the Walker’s design elements means that even a thin strip of pattern is recognizable — this can then be quickly and easily wrapped around any possible product. Most importantly, the designers can change a color or add a new pattern or keyword to the mix at any time. This allows for future flexibility. The brand is no longer tied to style or a time; it can evolve with cultural tastes and the needs of the Walker.


Stewart Brand defines vernacular as the indigenous building of a place. Vernacular more broadly means common designs by common people. What makes cultural common-ness so special is its ability to evolve steadily over time. Common features survive the passage of time when they are generally understood as “good.” Over years, the vernacular incorporates more and more “good” features while eradicating “bad” ones.

While we (as professional designers) cannot always behave as conservatively as vernacular designers, that doesn’t mean we cannot adopt their “common” ideals of constraint, durability, and thrift. In design we can always pile new ideas on top of old ones. We do not have to reinvent the wheel each time we tackle a problem. Ideas imported from elsewhere, if better at solving problems than our current ideas, are easy to incorporate (this is how present-day open-source communities function). Our role must be to take the cautious, evolving methodology of vernacular design and apply it alongside our contemporary technologist tendencies and conceptual processes. ■

Initially written in April/May of 2009 as part of my Graphic Design MFA thesis work. Updated in May of 2010 for the Response_Ability conference. Updated for posting here 2015–06–29.

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