In the soggy heat of New Orleans in October, at the 2015 AIGA Design Conference, hundreds of the most brilliant minds in design converged to share their art, their souls and their business cards. The heavily air-conditioned basement brimmed with display booths, and one featured a prompt on a Post-it: “Good design is…” Dozens of anonymous respondents stuck their considered memos underneath it to complete the sentence. The most common answer I saw: “Simple.” “Simple.” “Simple.” Good design is… simple.
Their way of thinking descends from a long tradition. “Less is more,” said legendary architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe. Shakespeare was more extreme: “Ornament is but the guild shore to a most dangerous sea.” Some go so far as to say simplicity is more ethical: “Virtue is like a rich stone—best plain set,” wrote Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon.
To them I say, “Hogwash.” And in my mind, this word, hogwash, is illustrated by decorative letterer Marian Bantjes, with gold-foil swashes that loop around it like the intricate arabesques inside
a mosque. The quotes above were collected in Bantjes’s book, titled I Wonder because that’s what decoration can do: make us feel like we see a god in the ornate designs of a cathedral’s stained glass, make us feel a sense of wonder.
Fine, let’s say the majority of good design is simple. Most of it doesn’t challenge us, inspire us, make us think hard or step outside our worldview—but it’s efficient, without too much fuss, and enables us to go about our day. Then great design makes us feel wonder.
But here’s what I’m left wondering now: Why have so many designers settled for “good”? And why has ornamental design become the bogeyman?
Until the Victorian era, an ornamental product often signaled that its owner was wealthy. Intricate details were painstakingly carved, woven or painted by a human hand. Of course, this came at a premium. Ornaments adorned the palaces of India and Cambodia, the mosques of Turkey and Iran, the cathedrals of France and Spain—buildings meant to inspire awe. Filigree and flowers embellished luxury wallpaper and the premium typography found in books and storefronts.
With the industrial revolution in the 19th century, anyone could mass-produce decorative designs. As a result, poorly replicated designs made ornament look cheap, and designers balked at the garish taste surrounding them. In 1929, architect Adolpf Loos said, “The modern ornamental artist lags behind or is a pathological case.” Modernism preached the beauty of form following function: only the bare minimum was necessary, and the basic structure of an object was beautiful on its own.
Something similar happened to ornate designs online, as noted by designer and developer Dmitry Fadeyev in Smashing Magazine. We’ve simplified websites in part because our former decorations now look tacky. In the 1990s, wacky GIFs and Flash animations exploded on your Internet browser as if Lisa Frank had animated the world encyclopedia. Yahoo! GeoCities enabled everyone to personalize their own homepage with haphazard unicorns that galloped across the page with a smug look of: “Grid? What grid?”
But all fun things must come to an end. “Having a GeoCities page basically became synonymous with dilettantism and bad taste,” writes Internet artist and theorist Olia Lialina. Now, instead of unicorns, spinning planets, roses and dolphins, we have sanitized and corporate-looking personal sites—Facebook, LinkedIn, about.me—that won’t let us run amok with our poor design choices.
“It feels gross and disgusting to say it out loud, but the death of Flash might actually be a bad thing for creativity,” writes tech journalist Owen Williams in an article titled “Web Design Is Now Completely Boring” on the Next Web. “Developers and designers loved Flash because it enabled audacious ideas that didn’t necessarily require huge amounts of coding knowledge.”
Between the Internet’s fancy-free birth and today, we’ve also gone from skeuomorphic design to flat design. In the 1990s, to acquaint people with their newfangled computers, skeuomorphic designers styled icons to look like real objects: trash cans, file folders, floppy disks. Shadows and details made applications look like they had dog-eared pages or distressed leather with stitched bindings. “Apple Calendar looked like a dog had just chewed on it,” jokes designer and writer Jeffrey Zeldman.
Then responsive and flat design rejected the silly real-world metaphors and instead focused on simplicity, typography and color—minus the shadows that give a page the illusion of depth. High-profile examples include Apple iOS7 in 2013 and Google Material Design in 2014. Fadeyev calls this “authentic” design in Smashing Magazine: “Authentic design is about representing function in its most optimal form, about having a conviction in elegance through efficiency. Authentic design is about dropping the crutches of external ornament and finding beauty in pure content.”
The word efficiency is key, and captains of industry have latched onto it. Tech leaders such as Apple and Google (a.k.a. the fun police) have embraced minimalism with a vengeance. The benefits to simple web design are many: scalable, quickly iterative, faster to load at high resolutions and on retina screens, easier to understand at a glance, easier to do A/B testing on, and—most important—profitable.
“I miss the experimental feeling that design had ten years ago—not the shadows or the burlap, but just the idea that you never knew what you were going to get,” Zeldman says. “It was always in service of an idea. Now, there’s commodification pushing toward a frictionless consumer transaction. … I don’t think that’s all design should be about. Right now, it kind of is.”
Letterer Jessica Hische, whose husband Russ Maschmeyer works as an interaction and product designer at Facebook, says, “We’re in an age of ‘templatizing’ too intensively, and people are afraid of deviating too much. In the tech industry, they’re very analytics focused, and it’s hard to analyze the happiness people get from your website. The slower way of going about things is not what people in tech look for—there’s not much of a slow Internet movement. But maybe there should be.”
Even though CEOs are finally saying they love design and are bringing more designers in-house, says Zeldman, everything looks the same regardless of which brand it is. “There’s nothing wrong with everything looking the same in terms of utility. If every site looked like Amazon, everyone would know how to shop at every site. But people don’t go into design to create experiences that have been created before or so as not to offend anyone—they go into it to surprise and to stir the heart.
“I would like to see people start playing again, being surprising, mysterious, with bold uses of color. Not just the same five elegant fonts—things with more bite and impact, things that are edgier. I would love to see magazines like Vogue, which is gorgeous and experimental in print, have that impact online. But still, its web experience is very secondary and second rate.”
As the Internet becomes the primary playing field for designers, I also lament the lack of ornament online. Not that everything should be decorative—some brands are meant to be minimal, and countless minimal designs are brilliant. But if interactive design is the Noah’s Ark delivering design into the future, we need each animal to sustain a viable ecosystem in our new world. We have too many plain squirrels and not enough peacocks.
This isn’t just a “gee, wouldn’t it be nice” wish list—experiments and risks might be necessary to keep designers employed. “People need to push themselves to do things that are more unique,” says interactive designer Sean Klassen. “It’s getting to a point where anyone could design most of what we see online. If everyone is making designs that look the same, there’s no reason our clients can’t use Squarespace.
“We could be designing ourselves out of jobs.”
Most of the excitement in ornamental design today appears in Europe. For the design equivalent of vibrant peacocks, look no further than the creative Dutch and Turkish duo Pınar&Viola, now based in Paris. Pınar Demirdağ and Viola Renate started their studio in Holland seven years ago and call their style “digital couture.” Renate says, “Without the crippling weight of nostalgia, we’re creating ornaments for the future.”
Inspired by online culture—including GIFs, amateur Photoshop aesthetics, profile pictures and website wallpapers—Pınar&Viola rejects the clichéd vintage designs that replicate Victorian styles. Instead, they embrace our recent digital history and express a vision of how ornamentation might continue to evolve and be relevant. The duo releases everything from patterns for Paris Fashion Week and illustrations for Bloomberg Businessweek to videos that air on MTV and anarchist queer interactive novels.
Pınar&Viola believes ornament holds a lot of power, especially today, when we face information overdose online. “Decoration makes you dream, and it provides an escape,” Demirdağ says. Renate adds, “You can use it to make things more sellable—or to reveal social and cultural differences, to raise questions and discussions. I think we’re capable of doing both at the same time—selling and questioning.” Demirdağ interjects, “Decoration is a reflection of diversity in sexuality, ethnicity, personalities. It has so many possibilities.”
In Europe, Pınar&Viola and other designers—including Swiss graphic designer Felix Pfäffli, founder of Studio Feixen, and in Amsterdam the studio Niessen & de Vries and graphic designer Job Wouters—say they’ve found a more receptive audience and clientele for decorative work for various reasons: more government grants for the arts that enable designers to explore and take risks, more independent design firms, and the lack of a puritanical heritage that, in early America, shamed women for wearing the decoration of makeup. “Graphic design here is like an art form,” Pfäffli says. “So it’s like a luxury product. This leads to design that goes a bit further beyond trends. … European designers are more like public figures. With that, the designers get more self-confident, and they express themselves more.”
Back in North America, near Vancouver, Bantjes, regarded by many as a seminal figure in decorative lettering, says she struggles to drum up business despite her widespread respect in the industry. “I’ve actually had a really bad year this past year—I’ve had almost no work,” she says. “I still get clients asking for things that are simple and elegant, which annoys me.
“People see decoration as a frivolous add-on, when in fact it’s a language itself and a communication device when done well. … For any highly legible typeface, you get the message in a second, and you turn away. I use ornament to disguise the message and draw people into it. The ornament is like a honey trap that draws them in—a surprise—so they have more engagement with it.”
In 2008, Bantjes created a poster for an Australian wine distributor with the names of all its wineries embedded in a kind of code. She drew colorful grapes, all “engraved” with letters that spelled out the wineries’ names. At first, the poster appears like a cascade of colorful dots. “And then you realize it’s grapes! And the grapes spell something, and each merchant would find their name. It has this unfolding of information.”
So what’s the way forward for Bantjes? “Pendulums swing, they go from one end to the other. In European design, it’s more interesting than America, in general. … I’ve stuck with ornament and moved it into new directions that no one else is, I think. I’d like to think that would be discovered, but I really don’t know what direction it’s going.”
WAITING FOR THE PENDULUM TO SWING
To keep evolving decoration into the future, Zeldman says we shouldn’t view responsive web design as a limitation, but as an invitation. “You can be extremely creative and think outside the box because there’s essentially no box. What happens when I turn a phone on its side? There’s more we can do. Be creative, design a system, an experience that can keep moving around—instead of just a page.” Zeldman understands this can be difficult in a fast-paced job and preaches the importance of side projects for experimentation.
Pınar&Viola says ornament can blossom hand-in-hand with technology. “There’s a big opportunity for refined, decorative expression in 3-D printing,” Renate says. “Your screen brings so many possibilities of interaction and customization, surprises and seduction.”
But Bantjes doubts that ornament will be embraced on the Internet, at least in its current form. “People are so impatient online, and ornament is about making you stop and look to feel wonder and awe. I can’t imagine the online world ever being a contemplative space.”
Technologists predict that our digital environments might leap from the confines of a laptop or browser to ensconce us, like a room of interactive wallpaper. In this space, Bantjes says, “I think it would slow down our attention considerably because it would surround you. Right now, when the Internet becomes too much, you can close it and turn away. But if it were more like an environment we exist in, we would have to slow down. That could be more ornamental.” The world of decoration could come full circle, back to the original elaborate spaces. In the future, we might live inside cathedrals of interactivity, lost again in the wonder of ornament. ca