Digital Materiality in the Age of Design Systems

This article is adapted from a talk given in May 2018 as part of the Digital Materiality symposium at Parsons The New School for Design, which you can watch here (I went fast because I had a lot I wanted to cover).

  In an increasingly homogenized interaction design landscape, how can we continue to craft unique digital experiences? As designers, how do we retain agency and ownership over a process which has become progressively atomized?

The past several years has seen the rise of design systems and frameworks along with toolchains and build processes which have dramatically expanded the complexities of designing and developing for screen. Design and engineering roles have splintered and specialized, with large teams becoming the norm for producing digital artifacts at any scale. The net result has been a profusion of predictability — a continual rehashing of user experience tropes and patterns which define the visual form of most projects.

In this symposium, we attempt to unpack ways in which designers have been able to sustain their engagement with the materiality of screens, and speculate on how we might maintain agency in a discipline which continues to stratify.

I’m originally from San Diego. After high school all I wanted to do was live by a place with good surf so I went to the University of California—Santa Barbara where I studied Philosophy and Art History. There was no design program or art school.

After graduation, I spent a few directionless years in my mid-20s trying to figure out what to do with those degrees until this happened:

First, I thought: “this is going to change the world.” And then: “Someone has to make the stuff that goes on that screen.”

I didn’t really know who that person was, or how to become them until a chance encounter led to my first design job as a 27-year-old intern at a startup in San Diego. Eventually this turned into an in-house product design role, and after doing that for a little over a year, I moved to New York and started working in agencies mostly focused on this new world of technology products and startups.

I did this for a couple years, but became frustrated with what I was making. Web and product designers were making all these new digital things that originally attracted me to the field. While the implications were interesting, I found the design to be kind of homogenous and soulless.

All the interesting graphic design was mostly still happening in traditional mediums and institutions. The closest it ever got to the web was a picture of a book in someone’s online portfolio.

I decided to start freelancing with this vague idea of where I wanted to take my work. Eventually, I started working with my friend Jake because we were thinking about a lot of the same things. When we started, our ‘business plan’ was:

  • Graphic design, on screens
  • Do the opposite of agencies
  • Coding is fundamental to a digital design practice
  • Client work funds our own projects
  • We’re interested in all aspects and disciplines of design

Why am I telling you this?

Up to then, my resumé looked like this:

  • No formal training or education
  • Limited job experience
  • Wary of the tech industry
  • Prefers individual pursuits to group affiliation

In other words, doing things wrong comes very easily to me and as a result I’ve always really identified with a sort of outsider mentality. Aside from really admiring Marc’s1 work, this quote really jumped out at me me because I realized I wasn’t just grumpy but that other people were noticing the same things happening.

“I think designers naturally just want to fit in, have a nice, cute life, do nice, cute things. Work hard, be nice to people. Read Kinfolk. Raw denim. Beards. Flat Whites. Nice fonts, nice illustrations, nice design. Go with the flow. Just good, tasteful things, experiences and activities. And before you know it, your life is an Instagram feed, literally indistinguishable to any other designer’s nice Instagram feed. You melted into the digital soup. I don’t know if this rant makes any sense, but I guess my awareness or fear of this singularity is just naturally percolating in my work.”
— Marc Kremers, 20152

Singularity—How did we get here?
(A working theory)

This all started to coalesce for me one day when I was reading New York Magazine; I kept thinking about this one quote3:

“— is also the first brand to speak the visual language of the millenial: pared back, lots of white space, simple fonts.”
— New York Magazine

Coming from the other side of this process as maker rather than consumer (or critic, in this case), I didn’t feel like those trends were really the result of conscious decisions but rather, maybe, the result of larger forces. I thought back to my art history days, recalling that many aesthetic trends were responses to larger cultural forces.

Every designers’ favorite reference point—the Bauhaus—grew out of a reaction to the end of World War I and the relative liberalism of Weimar German. Or in the case of our friend Erasmus above, Rennaissance Humanism as a response to the medieval scholasticism.

I thought back to what was going on around 2008, when I first started to notice these trends, and came up with two big things3:

  1. The financial crisis
  2. The introduction of the smartphone

The framework for the web as we know it today

  1. Proliferation of ‘smartphones’
  2. App Store launches
  3. Shifting job market and the ‘gig economy’
  4. Digital products go mainstream

The combination of economic downturn and smartphone-powered apps changed how people worked and laid the framework for the web as we know it today. Look at some of the companies that were launched around that time:

  • 2008—Airbnb, Spotify, iOS App Store
  • 2009—Pinterest, Uber, WeWork, Square

Proliferation of digital stuff

  1. More devices, more screen sizes, more digital advertising, more emails to send
  2. More stuff to make
  3. Teams grow
  4. Roles become increasingly specialized

Startup economics are based on volume

  1. Positive feedback loop of startup growth and easy venture capital
  2. Articles posted, clicks, ad impressions, likes, users, views
  3. Venture capital makes profitability secondary to growth
  4. Tech products become giant systems

All of a sudden there was a lot more stuff that needed to be made, and the speed and scale at which things were made changed.

Design, technology, & economics fall out of sync

Maybe I haven’t done a good job of connecting the dots yet for visual people among us. Let’s look at this magazine as an example:

Why does the printed version look like this when the online version looks like this?

Or a different example — why do all of these illustrations feel the same?

Khoi Vinh elaborates for us5:

“But it is worth taking a step back to examine the way our products use illustration and trying to understand why we’ve all settled on this particular approach. It probably wouldn’t be far off-base to assume that a lot of these illustrations were done not by professional illustrators but by product designers who also have some illustration talent themselves. They designed the app and while they were at it, it was faster and cheaper to just have them create the illustrations too.

In fact, it might actually be desirable for some brands to look, y’know, distinctive and unique.”

— Khoi Vinh

It’s not (entirely*) designers’ fault

1—We don’t really know what we’re designing anymore

We don’t know the size or capabilities our canvas, context of the person using our design, what the final content looks like, etc.

2—Software is hard to visualize

Screenshots aren’t particularly compelling so stock images, simple illustrations, etc. become stand-ins

3—Roles become specialized

What used to be the domain of an entire team: art/photo directors, illustrators, photographers, and graphic designers, is now falling to the purview of product designers, who are becoming increasingly specialized or not given the institutional support to address all these things. So we get a scenario where a lot of digitally native experiences start looking the same

4—Abundance of templated solutions

Control over where content is published and how it’s presented is ceded to platforms and templated solutions – think Facebook, Squarespace, Instagram, etc.

5—Visual overload

Platforms for sharing images create faster trend adoption, shorter lifecycles for original content, and widespread dissemination of images. Moodboarding becomes a virus for spreading visual trends.

6—Commercial becomes cool

Personal and commercial blend together as once-niche interests find a big audience online, we see the rise of the ‘personal brand’, and selling out, once taboo, quite literally becomes the ultimate cool as selling your start-up is seen as the highest level of success

And, as a result, designers find themselves in a tough spot. As I like to ask my students:

What is the role of the designer in a future where every website is a Facebook page, online store an Amazon shop, blog a Medium post, or portfolio an Instagram account?

*But it is a little bit

Designers themselves have been co-opted as agents of the Singularity.

The cult of minimalism

In philosophy, we’re taught that one way you can validate an argument is by testing it at its extremes. This is minimalism at its extreme:

Very minimal, not effective

If we follow ‘minimalism’ to its logical endpoint, we arrive at a great homogenization.

In school I spent a lot of time studying the work of Bernini. This is the altar at St. Peter’s in Rome. It’s not a particularly minimal design, but if you want to convince people of the existence of a higher being, it sure is effective.

Not minimal, very effective

We’ve been led to believe that minimalism is the highest order design goal but sometimes complexity is necessary, and a designer’s job is to manage it.

UX as dogma

I sometimes have my students read this article called The $300M Button5 about how a startup made a small change to their checkout interface resulting in a $300M increase in sales.

Design’s product design wing have made ‘UX’ dogma because it’s seen as tied to the bottom line or some other quantifiable metric (inevitably also tied to the bottom line). As a result, “It’s more standard” or “Your mother has to be able to use it” are the kinds of responses that will kill any critical discussion in a professional context.

However, if we never tried anything new we’d still have the same websites we did in 1999. And we’d also have no soul.

Ruthless efficiency

I saw an article on the blog of a big tech company6 talk about how they were working on turning sketches into designs using image recognition and their design library.

You can either see this is a great advance in design tools, or as a way for a rich company to more efficiently reduce the size of their workforce (while simultaneously hollowing out city centers into amusement parks for rich tourists and developers, but that’s a different article).

Tools for repetition vs. tools for expression

Speaking of tools, you can even seen this trend in our new tools made for designing interactive experiences. We’ve traded powerful tools for crafting original, expressive typography and imagery for ones that facilitate more easily repeating variations on existing patterns.

Type tools in Illustrator (left) versus Sketch (right)

Type tools in Illustrator (left) versus Sketch (right)

I was really resistant to Sketch when it first came out7 and I couldn’t figure out why, but I realized that it was because it was removing a level of craft from the practice of design.

How we talk about systems

I think about this in two ways:

  1. Why did we started fetishizing corporate design manuals? Design is a great tool for organizing information, but we should desire the information, not the tool.
  2. By talking about design systems, it would seem to presume that there can be designs that do not work as systems. But, as soon as you have made two things, you have a system. (Granted, a system can be more or less exhaustive but its intention is the same).
A design system is just a process whose end result is > 1, plus documentation

But wait—good news!

I saw this and where I once would’ve piled on and said ‘yeah totally! Tell ‘em!’ Now, though, I don’t blame designers. Instead, let’s look at the systems that create these conditions.

I see more and more independent designers taking risks in their work and thinking about these topics8, our methods of doing screen-based work are catching up to our aspirations9, and because of growing concerns about digital privacy and data, there’s increasing attention on what we expect from the digital products we use.

What to do?

In my own practice, I’m still interested in my original goal of ‘graphic designs, for screens’. But by subverting the large systems that creat conformity we can create opportunities for designers and independent businesses to take creative risks.

Is there ever a case
for ugliness?

This is one of the most astute questions I’ve ever gotten from a client. I answered emphatically ‘yes!’ and pulled up our own website. The client was very tactful so he said he meant something more like Craigslist but I understood what he was really asking: Is there a case where something fails to communicate authenticity, value, emotion, humanity because it over-conforms?

I literally had a pain in my stomach when we launched this site because it’s so easy to pick apart10 – it’s very personal, and very ’non-standard’. It was only meant to be temporary but people responded to the site to the extent that, not only have we kept it, but people now ask us where we think design is going11.

Here’s our revised mission, five years in:

  • Help independent, ethical businesses grow.
  • Support designers through collaboration, thoughtful tools, and shared experiences.
  • Create opportunities for designers to pursue non-commercial work.
  • Education around related topics.

Thank you

Thank you to Brendan and Roon for inviting me to speak, Parsons for hosting the event, Carmen for helping me work through the drafts, and everyone who heard the talk and encouraged me to publish this. I’m hoping to continue adding to this writing as well as expand it into future talks.

  1. Marc Kremers/Future Corp.
  2. Marc Kremers slams rampant conformism in the design world, It’s Nice That
  3. I also thought it was also interesting how much design awareness had moved into the mainstream.
  4. Two Very Different Kinds of Illustration, Vinh
  5. The $300 Million Button, Spool, UIE
  6. Sketching Interfaces–Generating code from low fidelity wireframes, Wilkins, Airbnb.
  7. Obviously there’s plenty to complain about when it comes to Adobe, as well.
  8. Recommended reading: The Billionaire’s Typewriter, Butterick; Aesthetics, Reichenstein/iA.
  9. I’ve been using the magazine example for a few years now and will have to change it soon. It was hard to find an example magazine because generally their online equivalents have all gotten much better (and some of the printed versions have declined).
  10. One designer called it the worst website they’d ever seen, which in itself is an impressive accomplishment.
  11. Implicitly by hiring us, and more recently, explicitly by asking us what’s next.
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