Frank Lloyd Wright & The Digital Design Paradox

The digital medium is perhaps the most forgiving canvas we have ever been able to create on. It’s like a clay that holds shape and never dries, or a pencil with a never-ending eraser. The ability to easily change the user interface or modify how a website functions is what makes the digital stuff we make so great. To top it off, our raw material (bits/bytes) costs us nothing. If you have ever designed and built a physical product you quickly find the limitations. There is no forgiveness in creating something out of wood or metal. You can’t just quickly tweak it if you find something wrong once it has been produced. For example, putting a sticker on a table that says “beta” and then sending out a “table update” later to fix issues doesn’t work. When it’s a table, you measure twice (maybe three times) and cut once. There is no “undo” if you get it wrong. You start over.

So, with all the benefits of the digital medium, why does the final product seem to degrade so quickly? Searching through website galleries for designs that could be studied for years to come for their ingenuity and insight seems to be a fruitless endeavour. Search through something like an architecture gallery and you’ll find at least a handful of homes or buildings that will certainly stand the test of time. The work there will age well and has a better chance to be appreciated more in 10 years than it is today. Our mindset is completely different with digital products. Being able to quickly iterate on a design until we get to a superior product is something we can easily achieve. The downside is that clients have begun to expect things to be bigger, better, and faster. That final product has become an iteration, rather than a solid end product. Less time is available to think things through and get to that finely crafted solution. Every design, every piece of code, is “good enough” for now. There’s no real commitment because it can always be changed.

This problem is magnified when you are able to look at the work of a master artist like Frank Lloyd Wright. There is a home that he designed which is close to where I live. It is the Meyer May House built in 1908. The house has been completely restored, revived, and fully refurnished to that time period through the investment of a local furniture company, Steelcase. It took two years and multiple people of varied expertise to accomplish this. And, from a first-hand look it is really fantastic. Wright thought through every aspect of the home. Everything from the materials, the environment, to the aesthetics. It caused me to deeply reflect upon the work we do as digital designers. Let me say, before this, I had never been an architecture fan. For me this experience turned out to be more than a simple tour of an old relic, it taught me about great design.

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Play off of the environment. Wright thought about where the house was being built, what was around the structure, and designed it to belong there. The windows, or light screens, were ornate views that gracefully painted the room with light. The roof sloped down to frame what I would imagine to have been a beautiful prairie without any roads or other homes in sight. On the second floor, large planters where built outside the window to help bring nature up to that view.

Build an experience from every perspective. The main entrance is like a small cave hidden in the back of the home. You can’t see it right away from the sidewalk. He wanted the visitor to have actually been invited to the home. Any unwelcome or unannounced guest would have to work a bit to find the way in. The cave-like entrance introduces a sort of “contract” and “expand” feeling that is present throughout the home. Viewing a typical home from the street, you can pick out where rooms begin and end. From the outside of the Wright designed home, the windows connect as longer horizontal sheets that mask the division of rooms.

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Design it for a specific person. This is more than just user-centered design. It’s design that matters and fits the life of an individual. Mr. May was not a man of large stature, so Wright built the home around him. Standing at a very specific place in the living room to welcome guests, he would be framed by beautiful trimmed windows, and with the lower ceiling there, appear taller. Wright even went as far as to dictate places that family pictures could be placed. The main floor was designated for entertaining guests and the second floor for family life.

Every detail matters. Period. Wright picked not just any brick or wood, but specified materials and understood how they fit into the design. The mortar that served a functional purpose became a design element. There are two colors of mortar. One matches and hides the vertical seams (visual lines) of the brick. The other stands out to reveal the horizontal lines. This causes the strong visual of horizontal lines that match the low and sleek profile of the home.

The Wright designed home has numerous other details that are, for me, amazing. This century old home stands out in that neighborhood as fresh as anything found in modern architecture today. Looking at my work, in comparison, I started to feel that what I have created was disposable design. Living in a world of unlimited undo’s and the latest trends makes me really appreciate the craft and the thinking that Wright put into his work. However, I don’t think the craft of designing a website is too far off. We have embraced constant change and the very iterative nature of design for a digital medium. So, although I sometimes ache to create something that will stand the test of time, I love that design in this digital world never stops. It is an ever evolving, living entity. That doesn’t mean I don’t put as much thought into my work as Wright did in his. It just means we work with different raw materials. After this experience I’m definitely inspired to think about my work in a new way.

Image credits: Steelcase