If you can design one thing, you can design everything” –Massimo Vignelli
My husband and I are in the midst of buying our first house together. It’s a bit of a fixer-upper but nothing too major. Our first priorities are to refinish the floors, repaint, redo the kitchen, and update the bathroom vanity. The house is nothing like the Modernist glass box I once dreamed of, but it definitely has character.
There are intrinsic features to it that make it objectively beautiful: hardwood floors, mantel, bay window, high ceilings, antique leaded glass. After we refinish the floors, we’ll place the modern Ikea couch along the northern wall of the living room, flanked by scrap lamps. We’ll paint the dining room Edgecomb Gray and the kitchen Opulent White. We’ll move in — fingers crossed we make it through inspection — and find just the right place for each and everything we own and each and everything we’d like to own. Prouvé Standard Chairs, we’re lookin’ at [knockoffs of] you.
I have a strong desire to control every aspect of this upcoming renovation. I’ve never owned a house before; I want it to be perfect. That instinct’s only natural… right? We will imagine every future use and we will plan for it. It will be a total design utopia.
And yet. I know this thinking is flawed.
Our future house was built in 1900 in a Victorian style. It’s one of Baltimore’s “Painted Ladies,” a term used for homes painted in three or more colors to embellish their architectural flourishes. Modernism reigned years after this house was built, as a reaction against the excessive stylistic architecture of Victorianism. Modernism led us to believe in the single, heroic design figure. The one who had the vision. The one that rigidly controlled every feature of the work. The one that knew, once people got involved, the flawless geometry would be destroyed.
“[Modernism] means integrity; it means honesty; it means the absence of sentimentality and the absence of nostalgia; it means simplicity; it means clarity.” –Paul Rand
Modernism has certainly affected me and my sensibilities as a designer. I received my undergraduate degree from Ohio State University, whose Design Department has a long tradition of exposing students to Bauhausian and Modernist design practices. As a young newbie still forming her own point of view, I was easily swayed by Modernism’s rationality. (If I’m being honest, a part of me is still swayed. We plan to fill our house with as much modern furniture as we can afford.) I prayed to my design gods Massimo Vignelli and Paul Rand. I knelt at the altar of The Grid. I believed in the purity and extensibility of Helvetica and Futura.
My obsession intensified after spending a number of years working in branding and print. I pushed and pulled thousands of bézier curves, finessed countless rags, kerned infinite headlines, and perfected the alignment, spacing, and proportions of every page. It was meditative. Fixing every little thing felt honest. I was in control. My work was minimal and clear.
But a thought emerged and then lodged itself in my mind: Yes, the details matter. But how will this design actually affect the people that will use it? Does it make even a tiny aspect of their lives better? I realized that placing humans: the intended audience, the users, at the center of the design process was mandatory. It’s more important than my stylistic opinion. More important than having complete control over the final outcome.
As I mentioned, there are some principles of Modernism that still resonate strongly with me, and probably always will. The notion that “form follows function” — while not sacrificing beauty, of course — will forever ring true. I still love simplicity, clarity, and the elimination of superfluous detail. (I am so grateful that our house is the least-garish painted lady on the block!) A strong grid structure and perfect geometry and alignment still delight my desire for order. While I consider these principles sacred, for the sake of user-friendliness, I’ve learned that it’s best to let go of the idea of absolute design control.
After years focused on print (I’ll never completely give it up), I began to desire a more direct connection to user experience. I found my way to web design and now, I understand the lack of control intrinsic to designing for screens. When we design for the web, we are typically making templated systems. These systems will no doubt be influenced by the people that use them. We can’t dictate every little thing but our templates, styles guides, and CMS helper text should guide placement, art direction, and content types. If we’re doing it right, our designs will hint at the outcomes we hope to see. To me, this lack of control is daunting and complex. But it can also be exciting. We have the opportunity to create frameworks that invite not only interaction, but also participation. Participation in shaping an adaptive framework that will continue to interact with other people and forces.
I’ve relinquished control on our house renovation, too. Who knows what kind of countertop or sink we can salvage from Second Chance? I am determined to be open-minded, willing to design incrementally, to iterate over time, to allow how we actually use the house shape the way we design it. Eventually, I’ll find myself at home.
Originally published on the Happy Cog blog, Cognition.