Forgotten Values

A lack of a developed moral foundation leads to the evaluation of design merely in terms of its effectiveness in achieving primary goals, like that of making text on a page easy to read and understand or getting people to use more of a specific feature, and not in terms of the values that the design embodies and its place in the world. For example, in my post on the meaning of value I’ve mentioned the case of Facebook redesigning their app permission page. All the decisions seemed to have been focused on one goal: to relieve the user of having to make the decision themselves, thus reducing confusion and getting people to use more of the apps on their platform.

Many design decisions are in this way tightly aligned with some specific conversion goal, and when the designer strays away and, for example, tries to weave their own feeling into their work by creating a unique style, their actions are questioned and often accused of not contributing to measurable goals. The value of design is measured by “effectiveness”, but without a moral foundation, this effectiveness is tied to basic things like conversion rates alone, not any form of higher moral values.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the nineteenth century architect of the Houses of Parliament in London as well as the iconic Big Ben, was one of the first people to talk about architecture in terms of morality. Pugin was a devout Catholic and considered the Renaissance style of architecture that succeeded Gothic to be distasteful, and especially unfit for use in religious buildings. He had a point. Renaissance architecture was styled on Greek and Roman art, and as such the use of symbols throughout was entirely Pagan in its nature: Greek gods, muses, furies, and so on. Yes, Christian symbols would also be depicted, but they would be surrounded by the Pagan entourage, as well as a depiction of life completely incompatible with that of the Christian spirit.

People built their Renaissance houses because they were pretty and classical, not because they cared deeply about what they meant, and it was especially shocking for Pugin to see the same approach used in Christian architecture. In his book Contrasts, Pugin advocated Gothic as the only true style fit for Christian art. It was the style born in Christian Europe, and its symbols and design were a complete embodiment of the craftsmen’s understanding of Christian life.

Now, I’m not going to make a case for Gothic art here, my point is that the designer’s moral foundation plays a pivotal role in their work. The paintings, the statues, the typography and every architectural ornament all reflect that particular sense of life that the craftsman wishes to see realized. To a Christian craftsman, his style is the embodiment of Christian values, a constant reminder of how he should live his life through the symbols it holds. The same for a Greek craftsman, or an artist of pretty much any other era until modern times, but even then, during the birth of modern mass production, many designers, like the Futurists in Italy at the beginning of the last century, expressed their own sense of life through their work.

Modern design tends to be disconnected from art, focusing on practical utility over emotional nourishment. Modern art is relegated to the sphere of the useless, something to be experienced, not put into useful service. Design on contrast must be functional, and the stronger the focus on function, the less room there is left for the higher intellectual and emotional spheres to express themselves. Pugin hated design that conveyed a view of life completely incompatible with his own, but today we’re in a situation where design doesn’t express anything in particular at all, it just works. Without a moral foundation to drive us in a specific direction, we focus on the only thing we have left: functional metrics. And so in turn designers begin to make design decisions dominated purely by short term metrics, such as the example of Facebook above manipulating the user to boost app usage.

My point is not a general attack on modern design. There are plenty of designers today who are not satisfied with base metrics and work hard to design products that are a joy to use. They pour all of their creativity into their work to give us their best solution, and not merely from a functional standpoint, but something that nourishes us emotionally as well. My point is that a decrease in applied moral values is facilitated by a disconnection of design from art, the two fields that were one and the same not so long ago, and that an approach to design without a moral foundation leads to design that is focused purely on how effective something is in terms of some short term metrics, not based on absolute principles. Nobody sets off to make bad products, but the above makes it more likely that we will keep seeing designs that fall short in some of the ways I’ve listed in my post on design values, designs that are effective without also being good.

August 2012