Contemporary design has lost its soul

30 Jun, 2019

As technology and efficiency improve, our products have become less beautiful and unique.

Design influences the world in many ways, from user experience and branding to architecture and engineering. A practical and elegant method of implementing design is by utilizing the well-known principle that form follows function. This notion implies that design decisions are quantified with purpose and grounded in efficiency and practicality — nothing more and nothing less. However, this utopian belief can result in designs that come across as sterile and predictable.

The continued growth of the user experience industry has impacted the design field indefinitely. Much of contemporary design gets driven by UX information such as accessibility, research, and data. Overall, these objective methods and determinations yield more usable products and services. But more importantly, it produces satisfied users, thus leading to a more holistic and profitable business model.

If we examine websites from tech industry leaders such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, we can see the designs are neutral, simple, and clean — plenty of white space and contrast for accessibility, hierarchy, and navigation. However, they have replaced unique and authentic with clinical and quantitative. They do not take any creative risks by exploring colors, bold graphics, or typography. Their designs are safe, sterile, and impersonal.

10 to 20 years ago, websites were wildly creative in appearance and usability. Of course, this was terrible for user experience, but there was something to be said for the unique and imaginative exploration of design concepts at that time. There were no rules to be followed. This ignorance and freedom led to many failures, but it also inspired some of the design foundations we utilize to this day.

It appears the more we learn about user behavior and the better technology has become regarding analytics and data, the more websites have morphed into neutered and templatized versions of their former chaotic and free-spirited designs. Akin to our open-minded younger selves tamed by education, responsibilities, and peer pressure, convinced that the only way to stand out is to blend in.

The automotive industry is also an excellent example of this subtle transformation of how knowledge has to lead to better, yet at the same time, soulless products.

Wings Without Purpose

The 2021 Tesla Model S Plaid, an electric vehicle (EV), recently managed a 0–60 mph in 1.99 seconds, becoming one of the fastest production cars in history. This status is notable, as it appears you can have your cake and eat it too, regarding the combination of balancing environmental friendliness and performance supercar.

Tesla engineers their cars with the concept that form follows function. The body is sculpted using data from wind tunnel testing to guide the reduction of noise and decrease energy consumption while driving. The minimalist and technologically advanced interior focus on comfort and convenience. And the powerful electric motor makes zero emissions and sound while casually speeding down the highway in its understated four-door supercar status.

Now let us compare the Tesla to one of my favorite vintage cars, a 1957 Chevrolet Belair. The development of the Belair happened before our current comprehension of aerodynamics and the environmental implications of the combustion engine. Yet, in my opinion, the Belair has more character and soul than a modern-day EV, both aesthetically and emotionally. The Belair’s overabundance of Chrome and jet-inspired emblems, body molding, and tail wings give the car a unique and exciting exterior. It performs the 0–60 mph much slower than the Tesla, but there is no replacement for the beautiful sound and visceral feel of an American V8 engine.

As the proud owner of a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro, I can speak firsthand to the appeal and sensations experienced by such an analog vehicle. On paper, classic automobiles are terrible at just about everything compared to modern-day cars. But they possess an unmatched beauty, soul, and character as the result of the limited knowledge that we take for granted today when developing vehicles.

Automotive manufacturers used to ignore the current efficiency standards we use now to design and engineer automobiles. And strangely, that is what made these classic cars unique and beautiful.

Design objectively with subjectivity

The requirement to make designs efficient is obvious. If we ignore research and evidence that make a structure, product, or composition more effective, it would be detrimental to the users, businesses, and the world. This notion is what also separates concepts such as objective design from subjective art and beauty. And while we tend to believe these two domains should be separate, the reality is that art and beauty add immeasurable value to the things we interact with and is something quantitative methods lack in implementing.

I am not suggesting that we go around adding unnecessary elements to our designs for the heck of it. However, it is essential to look at the data and make calculated decisions that sometimes go against efficiency and logic to add character and make something beautiful, unique, and soulful.


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