Digital Designers learning from Architecture and Urban Planning

Photo: Alan Weiner

Photo: Alan Weiner


This is an in-progress series of thoughts

When it comes to web & digital design a new world is forming. A world previously owned by engineers and developers. Now with designers taking a major hand in the process and with “product” design becoming a career of its own, I believe it’s time to take a look at the criticism put on this industry.

Victor Papenak, in Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, talks about industrial design being one of the most dangerous professions in the world because of how much influence it has on the things we use every day. I’d like to compare digital product design with industrial design and architecture.

With developers often being referred to as engineers, it’s time designers be referred to as Digital Architects. Our relationship between what we make and the users is directly linked in the same way that architects craft the space that humans interact and live within.

Laying the framework for a design starts similarly to how an architect takes in the site he has to develop on, limitations provided by the earth, budget, and what the project calls for in a brief.

I’d like to think of the windows in a building as the white space on a web page. Windows allow light to pour into a space, pooling in areas the architect has chosen to highlight and/or cast in shadow throughout the day and into the evening. When a web designer approaches a website they have to take into consideration the white space they use in the same way. Allowing lightness to pool in certain parts of the design gives the eye a chance to breathe, a chance to gather your thoughts between reading or viewing. However, with light comes the issue of a need to block out the light. If an architect designs a room to feel like the outdoors, say with skylights and floor to ceiling windows, a resident can feel blinded throughout much of a sunny day. The same issue can happen on websites that overuse white space or even poorly handled typography. Essentially creating a structureless website with no defined method of use. When a designer is restricted to a smaller screen in the mobile world he/she actually has the chance to play with lightness and darkness. Should a design adapt to the time of day? Knowing full well that morning eyes might need a bit of boldness in the text to provide extra clarity while the evening shadow calls for a darker background with a dimly lit text to allow for a comfortable viewing with the least possible eye strain, most likely after a full day of staring at another glowing screen.

One might think the colors involved in web design have no relation to that of the colors painted on buildings. You’d be wrong. Consider walking down a street of houses, every home a slightly different shade of beige. However, each and every door is a unique hue. While color allows homeowners to express their personality, be that bright or dull, it also serves as a point of entrance or a call to action. Think of a door as your primary call to action. This tells people where to go and what to do.

Photo: Carl Nenzen Loven

Photo: Carl Nenzen Loven


The Web and Accessories

Air vents, security cameras, speakers and TVs, all accessories finding their places here and there within the architecture of our cities and homes. Nearly always additions to the predesigned surfaces that architects and interior designers slave over the same way we do while designing our websites and apps. But what is considered and accessory versus finishing details? Crown molding and baseboards are add ons to the architecture but would not in my opinion be considered accessories. What do we consider accessories?

Elevators related to scrollbars. An element of design allowing the user to take full advantage of space above and below the visible area.

Frank Lloyd wright and his total design including the furniture and artwork. Stanley Kubrick and writing, directing and producing his movies to totally reveal his true vision for a film.

What are the implications of additions versus reconstruction versus slowly moving over to a newly designed platform? With the cost of redevelopment and redesign often nearing that of an actual building how do we as web designers cope with the difficult task of becoming contractors versus architects?

Photo: Jay Wennington

Photo: Jay Wennington


Culture and communities

How do we differ as trades people or craftsmen in the sense that plumbing is usually just plumbing or the internals and moving pieces. Closely related to development because of its overtly behind the scenes

How do web communities and social media platforms relate to urban planning and design? Jane Jacobs went deeply into the death of great American cities specifically noting that parks crafted for the public by the big wigs often went unused and became rampant with violence and homelessness. Why is this? Because you can’t plan for people and how they want to use the space. Your best option is to do as many interviews with the residents as possible and do your best to set aside any preconceived notion you might have about design best practices.

With different cultures come different forms of architecture and design, castles throughout Europe, Coastal homes in the United States, Mud Brick and Adobe-style huts in Africa. Each of these styles, though limited in my coverage, take into account the many considerations of weather, location, culture, and anatomy of the people living amongst the buildings. In approaching design we often consider the universality of our products, however as with architecture, our products are used by different people of different cultures, different levels of education, of understanding of personal symbols and languages. How can we even begin to consider universality and intuitiveness among all of those differences? We may be making one product, but it should without a doubt have the consideration of each individual it will be in front of. We slave over responsiveness and the correct viewing of websites on hundreds of screen sizes and devices, yet we rarely consider the broader context of major human culture differences when designing our products.

When designing websites we account for hundreds of screen sizes, yet rarely consider major cultural differences across the world.

Again, this is a dump of thoughts and needs considerably more time to craft into something coherent, but I wanted to share regardless.