This 100-Year-Old Dutch Movement Shaped Web Design Today

Primary colors, clean lines, asymmetrical simplicity: You might recognize them from Google, but they come from De Stijl.

By Alain Dujardin and Jop Quirindongo

Image: Jop Quirindongo

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of a Dutch art movement that has had a worldwide impact: De Stijl. Right up to the present day, De Stijl has influenced art, architecture, and product design. But the impact of De Stijl is particularly apparent in contemporary design—more specifically, in digital design.

Every product we touch or use is the outcome of a design—and we’re increasingly surrounding ourselves with digital design. We turn on the Nests in our living rooms, catch up on email on our MacBooks, and gaze for hours at the tablets and smartphones we hold in our hands. These “connected products” are making technology more intimate—so intimate that we wear them on our bodies, and soon, we may even carry them inside our bodies. Digital design is quickly becoming the leading medium of the products that influence our lives.

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When we, designers and producers of digital products, look at a painting 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, the artists of De Stijl promoted a design reminiscent of the contemporary web, with clean lines, solid colors, and simplicity. But how could a hundred-year-old movement influence contemporary digital design?

In 1917, Theo van Doesburg founded the magazine De Stijl. Even though the magazine never sold more than 300 copies, its impact on the art movement within the Netherlands 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.

At the time, the art movement did not seem very successful. 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. “You could argue that as an art movement, De Stijl failed,” says Natalie Dubois, a curator at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. “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.”

Driedelig glas-in-loodraam, by Theo van Doesberg.

But many of the principles voiced by De Stijl later found their way into basic design principles: elementary shapes, asymmetric compositions, and use of primary colors. Tom Andries, a member of the Belgian design agency Branding Today, says the contemporary move toward abstraction is rooted in the movement. “[It] is still very relevant today,” he says. “The designs are timeless because of their simple look and geometric shapes. The basic principles applied by the movement really add to contemporary design.”

Harald Dunnink, founder and creative director at digital design agency Momkai and co-founder 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,” he says. “They had very clear ideas both in terms of form and of the power of the mind.”

The key principles of De Stijl still resonate. In the 1990s and early aughts digital design was an explosion of designs, colors, and patterns. But in these times of digital overstimulation, design has shifted. Now we look for something to hold onto, and we often find it in functional, minimalist designs: abstract and elegant, stripped of any frills.

 

Windows 10 (left) and Google’s Material Design (right)

Today’s digital design shows a clear preference for horizontally oriented shapes, and a grid-based layout. Naturally, this results in a visual vocabulary that is strongly reminiscent of the characteristic De Stijl compositions, as is evident in the grid-based interface of Pinterest, for example. Other examples include Google’s Material Design, a design theory that explains how every manifestation of Google is constructed. Windows 10, the most geometric looking operating system so far, also invokes De Stijl.

The key principles of De Stijl will lead the way in designing an increasingly digital world. “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,” says Bert Hagendoorn, founder of Dutch Digital Design, an interdisciplinary platform for collaborative design. “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.”

Dave Hakkens’ Phonebloks project.

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. “Poetry, visual art, furniture design, architecture: the members of De Stijl covered all the disciplines,” says Dubois. Their approach was multidisciplinary and they worked in close collaboration.”

In digital design, collaborating across the disciplines is a must. Designing a smart home thermostat such as the 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 helping direct the process from there.

But perhaps the time has come to look even further beyond the horizon. “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,” says Danielle Arets, an associate professor at Design Academy Eindhoven.

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 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,” says Arets. “Nor do we know how to protect ourselves from the possible extreme outcomes of all this.” 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 creating balance. Instead of focusing solely on what is technologically feasible, they should be asking themselves at all times what is humanly desirable.

“Digital designers should be more aware of the consequences of what they create.”

In doing so, they should take on board the current social circumstances, like the members of De Stijl did in their day. “The developments today, in terms of estrangement and polarizing viewpoints, demand a vastly greater level of engagement from our designers,” says Dunnink. “Let’s start drawing clear lines again, not to mark any boundaries between groups, but as a means to forge simple and immediate connections.”

Holland’s 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 about 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 modernization of our society—one that looks like a society we want to live in.

Translated by Wendy Lubberding. Read more about the theme year here.

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Source: Creative Juice

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