Primal v. Cerebral Design

In Two Forces I’ve superimposed Nietzsche’s idea of the Dionysian and Apollonian creative forces on modern design. Since I’m using the terms in a different context and with an adapted meaning, I’d like to present two new terms that will have more accurate connotations for these creative forces, or instincts, in light of modern design: primal and cerebral:

Primal The primal force is concerned with communicating feelings. Here, you do not question why, you simply do as you feel. This is the force that drives your hand as you do a quick sketch, or helps you pick a texture for a design element. Your decision making process here relies on intuition. In this sense it is like music: your decisions are felt, not reasoned, and while you can ask Mozart why he placed that particular note right there and get a reply, the real decision making process would far transcend those words.

Cerebral The cerebral force relies completely on reason and so here your decisions are reasoned, not felt. Here you have to answer why whenever you set off to add a new line or change the background color. This is the force of reason that restrains creative energy and turns it into something useful, like breaking a wild horse. The cerebral design instinct isn't concerned purely with function, aesthetics matter too, but we achieve them with the help of external frameworks and systems, for example: using a grid system to design a page layout.

It’s important to note that both are forces, or instincts, not design approaches or philosophies, and neither are they two ends of the same spectrum. That means that any design can be influenced heavily by one or the other, or both. The cerebral force is more advanced than the primal, relying on reason over intuition, but this doesn’t mean that it is better – to make that judgment we would have to ask: better for what?

Both will produce designs that are beautiful. Primal relies on intuition for this, cerebral on reason. For example, you can align elements on a page through trial and error. When things feel right, you may call the work finished. On the other hand, you can make the process more structured with the help of a grid system. Aligning elements then becomes a matter of fitting them onto the grid. Both methods can produce great results, but the grid method applies an external decision making tool to the process that pushes out intuition in favor of a more structured approach – although the primal force will still be involved somewhat in the selection of the grid size and placement of the elements.

Commercial design tends to be more cerebral because it’s easier to sell a design to a client when you can justify your decision making process. Telling your client than using the color red for that signup button has shown to increase conversion rates would give you a more positive response than telling the client you picked that color because you felt like it – though of course there are examples of clients picking designs they prefer based on their feelings, often causing friction with more cerebral designers. This also happens when more engineering inclined developers get involved in the project, since answering the why is important to them.

As a result, we see more initiatives for turning the primal creative chaos into cerebral order. In web design it’s things like mood boards, personas, wireframes, A/B testing and so on. Each tool aims to make the process more objective. Now, all these things are great for making a performant website, but what they also do is squeeze out the subjective from the equation, which has value of its own.

When Plato was young, he used to write poems; dithyrambs at first, but then later lyric poetry and tragedies. When he met Socrates, he burnt all his poems. Socrates didn’t approve of poetry, unless it was structured and governed by reason, so Plato’s reaction was to burn all these products of his primal creative energies. There is a same danger here in modern design to go too far in this direction and push aside all creative decisions that don’t have the words to answer the why.

For example, the design of Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8, is far on the cerebral side. The design team call the new Metro-style UI “authentically digital”. What this means is that the visual interface isn’t made up of fake textures and 3D objects. Instead, it looks flat with solid shades of color and a design that relies on typography and layout, inspired by way-finding systems used in places like airports and train stations. Signs at airports are pretty much all cerebral. You’ve got to make the sign as legible as possible, so everything from letter spacing and size to color and typeface is tested for this. The same is true with Windows 8. Because the interface relies so much on typography, the size, weight and spacing of every element has to have a good reason behind it. There is much less room for primal creative energy to manifest itself.

On contrast, Dribbble is a great example of primal design. The gallery focuses on aesthetics since each shot is often just a segment of the larger work. In this way you cannot judge the work as a whole, but you can judge the individual little details and touches. Subtle gradients, shadows, textures, reflections, shine, highlights and so on are combined to create visually stunning work, whether it’s an interface, an icon or a drawing. These are decisions driven by feeling. For example, making that background lighter may make the whole work feel warmer and more positive, or adding a slight shadow may make the icon look better. They’re subjective decisions that in most cases transcend words – decisions made through experience and personal judgment, rather than through external systems and frameworks.

The best work is probably a combination of the two forces: restraining the primal force enough to yield a useful product that performs, but not ignoring it altogether so that the more basic human element is satisfied too, both in the creator and in the user. Apple has good examples of this. Their software oftentimes has touches of textures and other such visual illustrations. For example, their Aqua interface for a long time had buttons that looked like droplets of liquid. Steve Jobs even made a remark that they’ve “made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them.” The visuals were also restrained and the interface remained clear, simple and uncluttered.

So the question isn’t which is better, the question is: how do you combine both forces in a way that doesn’t extinguish the primal creative energy, and at the same time doesn’t let this energy interfere with the function. For example: websites are built under heavy constraints, so for instance, using too many images in your design will have a direct impact on page load times (ignoring other things like the danger of cluttering the page). Understanding this constraint and working within it – e.g. using less images, more aggressive compression and more CSS styles – lets us create work that is both pleasing to the eye and loads quickly.

Going too far to the other extreme – removing all styling, like Peter Norvig’s site – gives us the content, but provides no aesthetic pleasure and so leaves us looking for it elsewhere. People will always have the primal creative drive, which is why we see so many gradients, highlights and realistic textures, among other visual touches, used in digital work. Rather than pretend that it doesn’t exist, like Microsoft has done by eliminating all such things with Metro-style, we should embrace it but keep it restrained within constraints so that the end result is focused and meaningful.

Published February 2012

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