Cultivating calm: a design philosophy for the digital age

As a designer, it is my quest to compose pitch-perfect platforms for others. Whether it is for the journalists and members of The Correspondent or for scientists and cancer patients connecting through the newly launched Oncode Institute, we aim to help people get to grips with the world around us. That inspired me to map out my own design philosophy. My aim? To cultivate calm, so that only the content can drive you to distraction.

Work by Sol LeWitt at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo by Eddo Hartmann

The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam invited me to put together a personal audio tour of the galleries and to host a special evening program. In selecting ten works for this tour, I was made to examine my own experience of the museum — and in the process, to examine myself.

For me, the power of art is that it asks you to reflect on other people’s creative choices. Beyond the works displayed in the museum, I’m also fascinated by the building itself. It’s a setting perfectly attuned to the experience of creativity. Precisely this quality makes it an inspiration for me in designing digital platforms for others. Standing here, you wonder: Which choices did these artists and the architect dare to make?

The museum affords me a calm space where I can focus on the works of others. This is an idea that ties in seamlessly with our approach at design studio Momkai and journalism platform De Correspondent. In the fragmented real time of digital media, we are bombarded by images and messages non-stop. Rarely do we tune out this background noise long enough to listen attentively to a single, solitary message. Our mission therefore, as I see it, is to create online spaces of calm.

The design philosophy of cultivating calm

But how? The project at the Stedelijk Museum was an incentive to put the principles underpinning our designs down “in writing,” in hopes of offering handholds for our team, insight for you, our readers, into what we are trying to do, and inspiration for other digital designers.

But first, some practical info. Above is an audio recording (in Dutch) of my talk at the Stedelijk Museum to launch the audio tour. In it, I explain my design philosophy of cultivating calm. For once, I didn’t use a single image or design to illustrate my presentation — making it perfect podcast material.

Prefer to read? Below, I outline my philosophy for designers in English. Fifteen years after founding design studio Momkai I have written down the principles that underpin our designs. They stem from a drive for quality and an eye for detail. Our philosophy guides everything we do, from strategic consulting to meticulous craft.

1. The foundation: a rich platform that exudes calm

A design in which it’s clear how all the elements fit together takes your user by the hand. From the outset, your goal is to create a design that gels, that’s coherent. What you see and what it does form a unified, immersive, and wholly unique experience, generating recognition and authority. Users feel reassured: you can see where you are and how to interact online. You have a basis of trust and a foundation to build on.

Don’t make work more complicated than it is, and don’t leave loose ends. Cherish the details: they are what pull you into the narrative. Remember that the design is a vehicle for the message; your objective is to get that message across loud and clear. Strength lies in simplicity.

Insight starts with understanding — a better understanding of the world around us. Every design requires a firm foundation of research. To get information across, you need to be informed. If you don’t furnish the context, you’re only designing confusion.

2. The approach: the calm to catalyze

Making strides is a matter of stopping to plot your course. Focus and selection define not only the design process, but also for whom and with whom you work. Think first about whose message you want to send. And if you believe in something, be bold enough to give it all the time, talent, and resources you’ve got.

Facing change with confidence works best if you guard your investments. Protect the talents of your team by making firm agreements in advance about approach, method, and ideas. Ground rules help others to play the game and help guard against foul play.

Every perspective that’s different from your own expands your horizon. And that’s vital. An open mind paired with an abiding curiosity engenders a design calibrated to the user. As well as connecting with users, you inspire your team to strive beyond itself.

3. The growth: the calm within the storm

No design is ever finished. It’s always changing and evolving in step with your users. And nowhere more so than in the digital environment, with its merry-go-round of screens, devices, and new services. Be enterprising and tap into that growth. By developing for the long run, you enlarge the impact.

Designs are never static. They are augmented and expanded by users. The trick is to build in playing fields that let them do so. You’ll learn what works, what doesn’t, and discover where changes can amplify the experience. Don’t make your design an end point, but let it pave the way.

Master the formula in order to let it go. Have the courage to think big and to work small, to dive into the details. Explore everything, including your own abilities, and your designs will be fresh and unexpected, surprising even you.

Cultivating calm

Our philosophy guides everything we do, from strategic consulting to meticulous craft. See our latest work at the all-new