2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Dutch art movement De Stijl. The movement will be commemorated with a special year-long programme: Mondrian to Dutch Design. 100 Years of De Stijl. 100 years of innovation. Right up to the present day De Stijl has influenced art, architecture, and product design. But is the impact of De Stijl equally apparent in contemporary design, and more specifically: in digital design?
Every product we touch, use, or sit on is the outcome of a design. And we are increasingly surrounding ourselves with examples of digital design. We turn up the Nest in our living rooms, catch up on our emails on our MacBooks, and gaze for hours at our ‘black screens’, the tablets and smartphones we hold in our hands. So-called ‘connected products’ are making technology more and more intimate – so close we wear them on our bodies (and soon we may even carry them inside our bodies). Digital design is fast becoming the leading medium when it comes to our interactions with the products we use and control.
When we, designers and producers of digital products, look at one of the paintings by Theo van Doesburg, say ‘Rhythm of a Russian Dance’, it almost feels like coming home. A simplified, minimalist approach to composition that matches so perfectly with contemporary digital design. Stripped to the absolute bare necessities. It is as if De Stijl has never gone away. The lines, the colours, the simplicity. To what extent are (digital) designers influenced by the hundred-year-old De Stijl?
Simplicity and Abstraction
In 1917 Theo van Doesburg founded the magazine De Stijl. Even though the magazine never sold more than 300 copies, the impact of the art movement within the Netherlands and far beyond was considerable. The members of De Stijl, people like Piet Mondriaan, Gerrit Rietveld and Bart van der Leck, intended to modernize society with their ‘new art’. Their approach was to achieve maximum simplicity and abstraction, in painting, product design and architecture.
The art movement itself did not seem very successful at the time. At its height, De Stijl never had more than 100 members, and what’s more, there was considerable disagreement on what exactly De Stijl was. Natalie Dubois, a curator at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht:
“You could argue that as an art movement, De Stijl failed: after the death of Theo van Doesburg the movement dispersed, the Utopian society they envisaged never materialized, and De Stijl was often seen as being too dogmatic.”
But many of the principles voiced by De Stijl later found their way into design: the elementary shapes, the asymmetric compositions and the use of primary colours. Tom Andries, of design agency Today in Mechelen, Belgium, is spotting a move towards abstraction in contemporary design:
“The art movement De Stijl is still very relevant today. The designs are timeless because of their simple look and geometric shapes. The basic principles applied by the movement really add to contemporary design; the clean lines and the sense of directness can be readily brought into play in a wide range of applications.”
Harald Dunnink (founder and creative director at digital design agency Momkai and cofounder and creative director of the interactive online journalism platform De Correspondent) sees the pursuit of beauty and clarity as a universal principle that is timeless in its capacity to inspire.
“The thing that has made De Stijl so appealing to me as a movement, is the way it strives for clarity, how it aims to come to the essence of a good design. They had very clear ideas both in terms of form and of the power of the mind.”
Digital Design Style
The key principles of De Stijl still resonate within digital design. Whereas in the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium basically anything went, in these times of digital overstimulation we look for something to hold on to, and find it in functional designs: minimalist, abstract and elegant, stripped of any frills. It plainly shows in the grid-based layout of today’s digital design, with its clear preference for horizontally oriented shapes. This almost naturally results in a visual vocabulary that is strongly reminiscent of the characteristic De Stijl compositions, as is evident in interfaces like Pinterest’s. Other examples include Google’s Material Design, a design theory that explains how every (digital) manifestation of Google is constructed. Windows 10, the most geometric looking operating system so far, is another good example.
And for the future, the key principles of De Stijl lead the way in designing an increasingly digital world. Bert Hagendoorn, founder of Dutch Digital Design, an interdisciplinary platform for collaborative design:
“I believe in the power of simplicity, which is why I am looking forward to the future, when user interfaces will become increasingly straightforward and intuitive, and really become a fluid, integral part of our lives. This will require not only digital design, but things like product design as well. A collaborative effort from a range of different forms of expertise.”
Think, for instance, of the ‘Phonebloks’ project by Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Dave Hakkens. He designed a modular smartphone made up completely of square blocks, one for each function. Or the project ‘Transformations’ by designer Maarten de Ceulaer for Italian fashion designers Fendi. De Ceulaer designed a modular system consisting of upholstered leather ‘strips’, which can transform any object into a piece of furniture. Instead of designing a single piece of furniture he designed the building blocks with which users can create their own furniture.
In addition to the immediately apparent similarities in shape, there is another layer to today’s digital designers’ affinity with De Stijl. The members of De Stijl stretched their activities across the boundaries of their respective disciplines. They refused to be pinned down by a single role. Natalie Dubois:
“Poetry, visual art, furniture design, architecture: the members of De Stijl covered all the disciplines. Their approach was multidisciplinary and they worked in close collaboration. In that sense, you could say they were vastly ahead of their time.”
In digital design, collaborating across the disciplines is a must. Designing a smart home thermostat such as Nest is no longer the exclusive domain of industrial designers. Interface designers, creative coders, motion designers, illustrators: such an apparently straightforward overall design can only be created in close collaboration. Digital designers are used to carving out a role for themselves within these multidisciplinary teams and to helping direct the process from there. But perhaps the time has come to look even further beyond the horizon. Danielle Arets, Associate Professor at Design Academy Eindhoven:
“Digital designers, like their predecessors of De Stijl, should perhaps consider training in a range of disciplines, such as
digital architecture and storytelling, because a good design can only come about within a cohesive process.”
A hundred years ago, the members of De Stijl wanted their art to contribute to the modernization of their society. They believed in human progress through technological, scientific and social improvement. With the current rise of technology and robotics in
everyday life, the search for modernization is more urgent than ever.
“We navigate online and offline, we connect across the continents, and surround ourselves with smart new technologies, but we really don’t quite know how our personal boundaries relate to these smart devices. Nor do we know how to protect ourselves from the possible extreme outcomes of all this,” Danielle Arets explains.
She believes digital designers should be more aware of the consequences of what they create, and act upon them. How can they find smart ways to integrate technology into our lives? Designers especially should lead the way on such issues, by, instead of focusing on what is technologically feasible, asking themselves at all times what is humanly desirable. In doing so they should take on board the current social circumstances, like the members of De Stijl did in their day. Harald Dunnink:
“The developments today, in terms of estrangement and polarizing viewpoints, demand a vastly greater level of engagement from our designers. Let’s start drawing clear lines again, not to mark any boundaries between groups, but as a means to forge simple and immediate connections.”
The theme for 2017, 100 Years of De Stijl, offers a perfect occasion for digital designers to take on a more prominent role within the public debate on the role of technology in our lives. Their knowledge and expertise on algorithms, data analysis and immersivity provides them with ample ammunition. It will allow them to follow in the footsteps of the members of De Stijl
and design the (inevitable) modernization of our society.
Jop Quirindongo is an independent designer who founded Lowres Creative Studio; Alain
Dujardin is Creative Director at design and innovation agency Greenberry
Translated by Wendy Lubberding
Read more about the theme year.