Researching about the programmatic thinking in web design and its roots in modernism

Master's degree in Design
at the University of São Paulo, FAU USP
March 2019 – June 2022 Brazil

Academics, Web Design, UX, UI, Graphic Design, Modernism

The resulting thesis of my Master's degree addresses the modernist roots of contemporary web design’s programmatic thinking. Despite the theoretical approach, the research emerged from my professional practice questionings as an e-commerce art director: What are the fundamentals of web design?

Master's degree in Design
at the University of São Paulo, FAU USP
March 2019 – June 2022 Brazil

Academics, Web Design, UX, UI, Graphic Design, Modernism

The resulting thesis of my Master's degree addresses the modernist roots of contemporary web design’s programmatic thinking. Despite the theoretical approach, the research emerged from my professional practice questionings as an e-commerce art director: What are the fundamentals of web design?

I have a master’s degree in Design from the University of São Paulo (FAU USP). The resulting thesis addresses the modernist roots of contemporary web design’s programmatic thinking. Despite the theoretical approach, the research emerged from my professional practice questionings as an e-commerce art director: What are the fundamentals of web design?

In that sense, I had the opportunity to go deep into understanding the major designing principles for visuals in digital media on the web. And on the way back, such reflections brought me new questions I can now face in my design practice again – namely, the phenomenon of reaching an aesthetic monoculture and revisiting the term “good” graphic design.


Recognition


Concluding this project, I was graced with the selection to be part of the Museu da Casa Brasileira Design Exhibition, an important premium in Brazil, in the unpublished writings category. Furthermore, my thesis was indicated for publishing by the defense committee. Also, I was invited to assess scientific initiation research for a Brazilian Congress.

To know more, download the completed thesis (in Portuguese BR).

Content





Programmatic thinking permeates much of today’s digital production in its most varied applications, besides serving the designer as a tool to design amid a fluid, infinite interface. The questioning that guided the study revolves around reflections on what aspects the modernist graphic design anticipated from the programmatic thinking of the web design while also questioning the unfolding of those roots in recent designs. Two moments in the graphic design field were elected: modern Swiss design from the 1950s and 1960s and contemporary graphic design from the 2000s and 2010s.

The title itself has driven the dissertation structure. At first, we presented and exemplified how ‘thinking by programs’ is expressed in the design of the digital interface in the online medium —as responsiveness, design system, and rational production process. We located this design approach in the modernist movement mainly through the work and production of Karl Gerstner and Josef Müller-Brockmann. Then, we went on to trace connections between the two moments and concluded by discovering reflections arising from these relationships —the phenomenon of “sameness” and questions about the “good” design.

Methodology





Beyond achieving technical skills, I seek guidelines for projecting in the digital medium —chaotic, fluid, and undefined. The research was done through: 1. Comparative analysis between the two moments, mostly by literature reviews of both; 2. Survey of original modernist documents and their theoretical elaborations; 3. Designing diagrams in order to visualize the web design’s chaotic nature; 4. Above all, interviews with national and international relevant actors in current web design, such as Khoi Vinh, Ethan Marcotte, and Thiago Hassu.

Learnings





With this three years intense —and fulfilling— journey, the most critical learnings were: 1. Synthesize ideas and go further in a well-delimited focus subject; 2. Survey at an unpublished and no categorized matter; 3. Academic writing; 4. Prepare and do presentations in conferences and among colleagues; and; 5. Produce, conduct, and edit interviews.

It was such a delight to have the chance to go into an in-depth theoretical study about modernist graphic design from the ’50s and ’60s (primary Swiss design), a matter I’m continually doing. Also, web design’s inherent concepts include responsiveness, designing for efficiency and scaling, design system, interactivity, testing possibilities, and the digital grid. Moreover, this portfolio was built mainly with CSS grid and flexbox, learning I had in my Master’s research.


Software used


InDesign for the graphic project, Photoshop for processing the images collected, Illustrator for the diagrams, Scrivener to write long texts, and Zotero and Google Sheets to organize the bibliographic catalog.


Sameness





The simultaneous look at the two moments of graphic design – 1950 to 1970 and 2000 to 2020 – revealed new elements of reflection and common phenomenons. That said, beyond identifying what modernist aspects are in contemporary design, we observed what factors the previous movement may have generated these days.

The “sameness” is a process observed by some critics of web design as a crystallization of the design process in a mere system, replicable. It is like narrowing the programmatic thinking, achieving an aesthetic monoculture in contemporary design production.


Possible reasons


In this section of the thesis, we collected some possible reasons that unfolded in this process observed. For instance: The commercial pathway taken by the web since the 2000s by focusing on sales, conversion, and user interactions. That is to say, functional and recognizable websites.

Another example is the big tech sharing the same company’s principles, such as friendliness, affordable, straightforwardness, and empowerment. Therefore, the same principles lead to the same look and are translated with the same visual guidelines: no needless decoration and clear, simple, and minimal design.

Finally, the extensive user engagement metrics possibilities qualify and shape the visual interface. Combining similar commercial goals with practical answers to such metrics, the design for the digital medium is gradually tapering off to standard visual solutions.


Now and throughout history


Going back to our Modernism learning, we noticed a similar process in the International Typographic Style. On the one hand, there is the extensive use of website templates as one of the most expressions of the sameness process nowadays. And on the other, it’s possible to compare it with numerous manuals of graphic design produced in Modernism —such as Josef Müller-Brockmann’s Grid Systems.


The sameness is a relevant discussion of how designers can deal with today’s consumer society matter. And in the thesis’s fourth chapter, we discussed which aspects are related to programmatic thinking and how designers can take advantage of this approach to projects to reach social interests.