The Bauhaus: Finding Creative Inspiration in Collaboration
One hundred years later, what can UX learn from the iconic design school?
Computing technology and the precision of engineering are sometimes viewed as being at odds with creativity or human expression. The exactitude of science and engineering is feared to remove the room for creative exploration. The Bauhaus, on the other hand, embraced science, engineering, and new methods of production. Marcel Breuer’s now iconic tubular steel furniture was inspired by the latest production technologies — it gave form to the Bauhaus ideal of simple and accessible products through the use of standardized components and the latest production technology.
The Bauhaus turned 100 this year and the new Bauhaus Museum in Dessau just opened its doors. If you work in user experience (UX), you are likely familiar with its ethos and its global influence on design education. And given that the Bauhaus aesthetic is influential to this day, it’s possible the chair you’re sitting on was designed by a “Bauhäusler” or one of their students.
My day job keeps me busy thinking about the future of digital product design. I’ve led UX teams at Google for over a decade, and an exciting part of the job is looking to other creative professions that play at the intersection of art and technology. Fields like architecture, industrial design, and film are interesting in that they too evolved with emergent technologies — and that they in turn helped shape.
The Bauhaus centenary led me to ask: What can UX learn from this iconic school? I’ve found it useful to look through two lenses: to examine its design principles and values, and to understand the Bauhaus way of working — how they collaborated, formed community, and forged lifelong bonds. My outlook is shaped by my experience at Google, but I believe much of this will translate to the discipline of UX more broadly.
UX inspiration from the Bauhaus: Simplicity
The Bauhaus built a legacy around simplicity: designers should view ornament critically, and serve users of products and buildings in practical, utilitarian ways. In the early 20th century, this was not a straightforward set of principles. Mass production of consumer goods, which required streamlined shapes and industrial materials, was in its infancy. Similarly, architecture was ornamental and romantic.
In UX, it seems we’ve only just come out of our first few decades where, similarly, design was driven by historicizing real-world metaphors like desktops, waste bins, and folders. Skeuomorphism, including 3D buttons, brushed aluminum, and the like was the dominant user interface (UI) design language less than 10 years ago.
Having spent more than a decade at Google, the concept of “simple design” feels intuitively right. Simplicity–most evident in our all-white home page– was one of our founding principles, partially in response and in contrast to the every-pixel-counts approach seen in the early days of the internet in the 1990s.
Still, as technologies matured and capabilities were added, we experienced drift. Through small, seemingly insignificant day-to-day decisions, we let our user interfaces become heavy and dense. In 2011 Larry Page, Google’s founder, initiated a company-wide overhaul of all our UIs. The goal was to unify the design language across multiple products and, most importantly, to make visual and functional simplicity once again the key design principle. Adhering to the tenet of ‘Simple Design’ sounds, well, simple — but in reality is anything but. It requires strong and daring leadership, and day-to-day commitment from teams to continuously question complexity.
The 2011 overhaul focused on desktop UIs, but since then smaller screens and new input methods have appeared, requiring an industry-wide re-orientation towards simplicity. This has in turn set a new UI design language: less dense, more white space, stronger focus on essentials. Now, with the move to conversational and multi-modal UIs, we have to re-think simplicity again.
In many cases the UI may just be something you speak to. What does simple design mean in this case? Do we measure conversational simplicity by the speed of voice commands and responses? Or is simple what is faithful to human dialog, so that we don’t have to learn new vocabulary or syntax? Conversation design has the potential to make products much more inclusive, as the UI is much closer to how we naturally communicate, and the ability to read is not a prerequisite for access. But are we then creating skeuomorphic dialog? Our teams and many across the industry grapple with these questions every day. As technology evolves, so do the design conventions, which then fade, over time, into the fabric of our lives.
The Bauhaus brought together many different arts and crafts: architecture, painting, weaving, carpentry, among others. Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School, believed strongly in the building as a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a complete work of art to be experienced in its entirety. I feel we are now at the beginning of being able to realize this vision in digital product design.
As we move into this multi-modal, multi-surface, multi-sensory world, we are increasingly able to think of our work as enabling a Gesamtkunstwerk.
In the early days of UX, we were limited to a black-and-green color palette, and one dimension: the command line. For the past few decades, we’ve become comfortable working in two dimensions (GUIs) and with the full color spectrum. With AR/VR, we are now moving to three dimensional space, and, via motion design, adding the dimension of time. We’re able to design for senses beyond the eye, via sound and conversation design, as well as haptic feedback. As we move into this multi-modal, multi-surface, multi-sensory world, we are increasingly able to think of our work as enabling a Gesamtkunswerk, in the sense that we can consciously design all aspects of an experience that speaks to all senses.
This shift is palpable in the job postings I now see in our field. When I started my career, I was surrounded by “Interaction Designers” and “Usability Engineers.” Today, I meet Motion, Conversation, Visual, Sound, AR/VR, Industrial, and Service Designers, as well as Prototypers, Writers, and Ethnographers.
Staying connected to the practice of design
Every Bauhaus Master (teacher) had deep practical roots in their respective craft, so each had a private studio, and was expected to teach students by jointly creating with them.
As leaders of UX teams, we similarly have responsibilities for growing the next generation of design thinkers and leaders. We need to create the conditions for working side-by-side and learning through collaboration. This is as important for young professionals who hone their skills and intuition, as it is for the team leads who get challenged to explain — and at times, to adjust — their views.
Taking inspiration from the Bauhaus, one way to respond to this challenge is to deliberately make room to stay connected with day-to-day practice. This may mean holding studios, and working side-by-side, even if only in short spurts, with team members across levels and specialties, to build familiarity and empathy with the disciplines that we are not masters in.
At Google, design sprints connect everyone with day-to-day practice. A few remarkably simple ingredients make these succeed, including: committing uninterrupted blocks of time–ideally three days–away from the office, and bringing together people with different skills, ensuring a low barrier for contribution by accentuating trust and playfulness.
I believe that the best ideas come from diversity of thought and bold approaches to problem solving, where masters (teachers) and young professionals (students) stand on equal footing in order to break down communication and collaboration barriers that hierarchy can bring. Sprints are the ideal setting for everyone to become a creator — independent of title or seniority, we all get our hands dirty.
Finding creative inspiration in collaboration.
The Bauhaus brought together masters from different fields. They learned from each other and inspired one another. They were keen to improve and evolve their craft by rubbing shoulders with those who had different perspectives and experiences. Naturally, this also led to creative tensions between some Bauhäusler, but it was a price worth paying, as the Bauhaus’ enduring legacy shows.
Today, too often I see UX or “creative” teams keeping to themselves. Sometimes, what may look like pride or snobbery may be motivated by a level of fear of not being understood by our engineering partners, or being seen as mere providers of superfluous ornament. However, more often than not, I’ve found that designers and engineers are united in pride in their creation, motivated by having a positive impact on the lives of people via our products. Only with this mutual understanding and appreciation will we be able to anticipate, harness, and shape the capabilities that new technologies provide.
The most successful peers of mine have forged strong bonds with their engineering partners. They are conversant in the languages of science and engineering, as well as those of art, design, and the humanities.
The importance of professional and personal bonds.
One particularly resonant part of the Bauhaus story for me is how the women and men of the Bauhaus formed life-long bonds and professional partnerships. They continued collaborating across the institutions that had become their new homes, as the rise of the Nazi regime meant prosecution or exile. At Harvard, IIT, RISD, Black Mountain College, and later HfG Ulm, they carried forward the spirit of the Bauhaus and shaped design education to this day. They managed to form such close bonds because of the strong social fabric they had woven a decade earlier in the relative isolation of Weimar and Dessau. The Bauhaus was the core of everyone’s professional and social life. The costume parties, birthday celebrations, and summer lakeside gatherings are legend and helped establish lasting bonds.
Deep professional and personal bonds are also uniquely important in our industry, one that’s defined by the pace of technological development. Companies, business units, and teams grow, and shift shape, as quickly as new technologies take hold. Of course, we have UX conferences and professional associations that bring us together, but looking to the Bauhaus, I wonder whether these venues provide enough of the spirit of playfulness and experimentation.
With a global UX community of multiple thousands at Google, we've recently formed a dedicated UX Community & Culture team, and part of the goal is make room for study and play. Part of this team's mission is to create opportunities for forming deep bonds and mutual learning, through efforts like our annual UX University, global mentorship programs, and offsite gatherings focused on leadership, diversity, and inclusion.
This is, of course, a departure from the days of the Bauhaus, which was inclusive by the standards of its time, but was far from equitable.
I was struck by how driven the Bauhäusler were by their belief that humanity could be advanced through technology and design.
In that sense, the ethos that emerges from the Bauhaus is similar to the ethos I’ve encountered when starting in tech about two decades ago: a strong belief in the ability of the internet to empower people, to enable access to information, to give a platform to diverse voices. Now, twenty years older, I am more cautious in my outlook. We have learned that new technologies, with their ability to reconfigure how we work, live, and play, can also have unintended effects.
This is an almost daily topic of conversations with my peers: what are the long-term consequences of our design decisions? How can we better understand our users, and bring more of the expertise that exists in the humanities into our design process?
There is a strong sense at Google that no single discipline and no single person has all the answers.
These conversations are a natural part of our design culture: Google never had the belief in a single creative visionary, or a single auteur who would make all design decisions. We’ve always had a culture of employee empowerment and limited top-down decision-making. This is fertile ground for a more open and humble approach to digital product design: we bring in multiple points of view from multiple fields of expertise. There is a strong sense at Google that no single discipline and no single person has all the answers.
Final thoughts, looking towards the future
As a profession, UX is still in its infancy and I feel our outlook can, at times, be too narrowly focused on the recent past or the near future. An obsession with current technical capabilities can sometimes cloud our longer view. As an antidote, I’ve found it useful to look back over a century, to find inspiration in the early days of the Bauhaus. Here’s what stood out to me for the field of UX.
- Simplicity — the constant need for reinterpretation, renegotiation, and defense of this foundational principle of accessible design
- Gesamtkunstwerk — making responsible use of our growing ability to design for all senses across many surfaces in digital product creation
- Staying connected to practice — finding ways of staying engaged in the creative process across levels and functions, e.g. via design sprints
- Creative collaboration — deep empathy and partnership not just with our users but also with our co-creators, the engineers, managers, marketers
- Personal bonds — the importance of making room for playful interactions and forming lasting bonds beyond ‘professional networking’
- Social good — not losing sight of our motivation to create products that benefit the people that use them, and society at large.
In my day job, I’m leading UX strategy & operations teams for sumUX (Google Search, Assistant, News, and Doodles), as well as UX infrastructure across Google. The Bauhaus has been a companion for a while: I spent my formative years at art school in Berlin, one of the cities that was home to the Bauhaus (and now the Bauhaus Archive). In London, where I now live, the Isokon Building, another hub for Bauhäusler, is nearby.