Weimar California: Some Bauhaus-Inspired Questions for Designers and PMs

Bauhaus Archive, Berlin

kellan wrote recently that so much blogging on tech today is all answers, no questions. Inspired and in agreement, I want to ask some questions that have been rattling in the back of my mind for years, heightened by a visit last summer to the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin:

What would a Bauhaus for contemporary consumer tech products look like? Could there be one?

For most non-designers, the remaining legacy of Bauhaus is too diffuse to really see; it’s truly everywhere. Your office conference room chairs? Marcel Breuer-inspired. The font in the new version of iOS? Joost Schmidt-descended. As a radical school of design that lasted little more than a decade in interwar Germany, to say it still has an outsize influence on life (and tech products) is an understatement.

“The ultimate goal of all art is the building! This world of mere drawing and painting of draughtsmen and applied artists must at long last become a world that builds.”

Bauhaus was sparked with a manifesto, quoted above. It is a sweeping statement that art, craft, and technology ought to be combined in a near-revolutionary mode of creation for the common good. A group of what today we would today probably call “creators” saw the new possibilities of mechanical production misdirected, artless, not serving everyday human needs. They wanted to build things better.

To technologists raised in the deceptively warm sun of the Californian ideology, a manifesto may seem like a tainted, overly political thing. Yet a manifesto might be just what we need.

Walter Gropius wrote the Bauhaus manifesto in ardent belief that technological objects have social ramifications. He saw learning to build them well as artists’ personal and collective responsibility.

Most product designers and managers today insulate themselves from this kind of responsibility. Move that button over there and conversion rates go up, end of story! But the products technology companies today build are used on a scale that would have been unimaginable to Gropius. Isn’t our responsibility only that much greater?

More than its manifesto or the objects it created, the crux of Bauhaus was education. A three or more year process of training ignored the mechanical ends and forced the creator to become a confident craftsman of materials. By carefully studying color, ceramics, textiles, and type entirely outside mass modes of production, she learned how to design objects that could be made in the factory with integrity. The artist was not worthy or ready for mass production until she has sufficiently understood the materials and their human effects.

This kind of “first principles” thinking that defined Bauhaus is a Muskian wet dream. What would it mean to step back and deeply understand the raw materials of apps and platforms, how they play in the light of human psychology? What even are our materials?

An example to show you I don’t mean this as just speculative intellectual drivel: Consider one of the most shoddily crafted elements of contemporary mobile products, the push notification. Perhaps the push notification could be for us what a chair was for Mies van der Rohe.

A push notification has substantial presence in others’ lives. It can be an annoyance, a joy, a day ruined, or a critical message conveyed. Many people see hundreds of them a day. As platforms, we send millions or billions a day. Is there a radical approach that could turn push notifications from ugly afterthoughts into intentional, meaningful objects?

Bauhaus was a remarkable synthesis of artistic sensibility, education, and socially minded ideology in response to massive shifts in technological possibility. Yet it is only that art part we tech product makers regularly consider from our vantage point in this new industrial revolution.

Many of us building products throw Bauhaus objects up on our mood boards: why not a bit of that ambitious ideology too? How might we craft differently?

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