While the commercial world continues to become more and more competitive, is there a lesson to be learned from the science of ancient design traditions?
October 19th, 2017
There is a single line of design thinking that connects Pythagoras to David Adjaye, or even the iPhone to Da Vinci.
Sure, traversing thousands of years between the them, we make brief pit stops at the feet of Euclid and Vitruvius in the Classical period, Leon Battista Alberti and Johannes Kepler during the Renaissance, Viktor Rumpelmayer and Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright in more recent years and, yet, between each and every one of them there is an undeniable commonality to their collective output.
Known as either the ‘divine proportion’, the ‘golden ratio’ or even ‘God’s spec’, the hidden code of divina proportione (that is, all elements of the design from the largest to the smallest of details subscribing to the 1 to 1.618 ratio – see above), has been the bedrock of architecture and design since 300 BC … and seems to be showing no signs of abating any time soon.
We might ask ‘why?’ After all, in the business of constantly designing a better, smarter future, ‘why’ would the A+D community continue to follow design traditions that are, quite literally, antique? Don’t believe me? Well, I am not the first to notice the eerie similarity between David Childs’ 1 World Trade Center in 2006 and The Parthenon constructed under Pericles in 447BC. Looking beyond their twinned use as public buildings, both structures also participate in the same aesthetic traditions of symmetry, pinpoint-perfect proportions and geometric exactitude central to the ancient tradition.
And yet, while both follow the law of divina proportione, today’s experts of neuroaesthetics now suggest that the continuing importance of this ‘hidden code’ in design is due to its special control over our behavioural and psychological responses.
It’s a finding that gives a silent nod to its enduring relevance since the Classical Age, and to further highlight the significance to contemporary design – and not simply as an aesthetic function, but also as a commercial imperative. Look no further than in your pocket. The logos and icons of Apple’s famed products all follow the same hidden code of divina proportione – and largely as a result of Apple’s extensive behavioural research studies.
During the focus group stage of development for its products, Apple designers trial several different prototypes with end-users to track behavioural responses. Through years of developments, uniformity, simplicity, scale and proportion in Apple’s current product suite – mostly subscribing to 1:1.618 scaled dimensionality irrespective of product typology (phone, computer, etc.) – were found to generate feelings of calm and even in some cases pleasure for surveyed users. Doubtlessly leading to the creation of a user experience that feels intuitive, seductive, and inevitable (we’ve all seen infants as dextrous with the latest iThing as any Gen-Xer), what is remarkable from Apple’s use of the hidden code is the extensiveness of its influence. From the layout of icons across a screen, the size and form of the logo, and even the spec of the object itself and the stores in which they’re retailed, Apple’s belief in the hidden code characterises every facet of the user interface: a total design thinking immersion that is so thorough it is impossible to segregate it from the brand itself.
Even if it may not have been Mr Jobs himself, it’s clear that someone in Silicon Valley understood the relationship between the ancient hidden code in design and its control over the release of dopamine. Responsible for the neurological effects of euphoria, satisfaction and wellbeing, dopamine is also largely accountable for our desires – the ‘want’ impulse that obviously underscores much of our commercial reality. As a brand asset, however, perhaps we’d be remiss for not taking note that constantly stimulated dopamine receptors leads to addiction (think: the hordes and hordes of Apple’s tireless evangelists, the frenzy in anticipation of another launch, the ‘must have them all’ mentality of owning the entire product portfolio).
Apple’s genius is ultimately that it makes us all feel that their products (and thus, the brand) work “for me”. The iPhones only get better and better, the Apps become more and more useful, and suddenly we find that not only do we use their products more and more but also we quite simply believe they’re integral to our quality of living. It’s little wonder, then, that their largest current market – Millennials born between 1980 and 2000 – demonstrate the keenest aptitude using their products as well as the keenest desire for incorporating said products into every part of their lives.
Now it’s commonplace to note that Millennials show a desire for a pointedly different lifestyle from their forebears, but few are reporting the largest impact the generation is having on our day-to-day material culture. Recently, Oxford Economics’ landmark study proved Millennials would comprise more than 80% of the global workforce by 2025. Coupling this with their damning assertion that the global talent supply will be inadequate to meet market demand up to just 2021, it is little wonder that companies across the globe are seeking to design workplaces suited to this influential demographics’ tech-savvy nature. Eschewing traditional design cues in the commercial environment – assigned workstations, the cubicle-farm, rigid and closed layouts – for more open, agile and mobile-working-style concepts, organisations with appealing workplaces will doubtlessly have the edge on the war for talent.
Recently, I reported on modulyss’ new Millennium collection, the R+D based on the behavioural psychology of colour, and the brand’s unique approach to design thinking in a bid to allow carpets to aid end-user wellbeing. Two additional ranges within the collection – Mxture and Txture – appear to me now, however, as particularly reflective of our time and especially useful for our anxious commercial sector. From the psychology of colour to, instead, the psychology of geometry and form, Mxture and Txture’s highly structural detailing is inspired by the classical history of architecture.
The new ranges are a feat of inspired design thinking that respond thoughtfully to the very complex ways in which we negotiate space. As the first physical contact an end-user experiences of a space, the position flooring holds over our behavioural psychology is significant. (and is obviously not lost on modulyss) Participating in an aesthetic of linear and angular geometric designs, the range references the most granular forms of architecture – shape, form, euphony and narrative geometries – to elevate the role flooring can play in empowering the end-user.
What emerges in situ, however, is far more than just a mere variation on a geometric theme. Through a replication of shapes, a negotiating and renegotiating scale and proportion, what begins to develop is not monotonous pattern, but the sense of calmly determined design choices bestowing the invisible comforts of daily life (… sound familiar?). Meditating on the architectural history of the hidden code, Millennium Mxture and Txture infuse the best neuroaesthetic properties of ancient traditions with modulyss’ unique insight into the state and struggles of the contemporary workplace.
Understanding that the design of a workplace looms large in its capacity to attract and then retain that swiftly disappearing talent, Mxture and Txture also prove to be especially poignant for the soon-dominant Millennial workforce. Moving beyond design for design’s sake, the ranges give designers the possibility to make a bold political statement: the best designed workplaces aren’t those which merely ‘look’ good, but those where the entire design scheme plays a role in extending the purpose of the company, empowers its end-users, and fosters the basic neurological conditions for wellbeing and comfort.
While the graphic nature of the two ranges combined offer the chance to participate in those neurological benefits of the hidden code for end-users, it would appear that they’ve become equally popular with the A+D community, too. Characterised by a level of design versatility that could only be classified as extreme, the ranges are capable of pairing any of the 9 standard Mxture x Txture tonal varieties with the 36 colours available from modulyss’ Nxtgen range, while also integrating seamlessly in form with the entire modulyss product suite. In so doing, never has customisable design solutions for the most uncustomisable space (the floor) been quite so achievable.
INDESIGN is on instagram
The internet never sleeps! Here's the stuff you might have missed
When Luke Pearson and Tom Lloyd founded their eponymous studio, PearsonLloyd, in 1997 they set out to bring the worlds of furniture design and industrial production closer together – an approach that has brought them success as one of the world’s most celebrated design studios.