Spring 1997

Geometry is never wrong

The ‘exact beauty’ of De Stijl could provide cyberspace with a new set of design co-ordinates.

In his collected essays, Architecture and Disjunction, Bernard Tschumi argues that frames as architectural elements derive their meaning through juxtaposition. ‘They establish memory,’ he writes, ‘of the preceding frame, of the course of events.’ The idea that a structural element can serve a graphically direct yet intensely personal need is a compelling notion, and recalls the ambitions of earlier twentieth-century visionaries, particularly the De Stijl group, an informal confederation of artists, architects and designers working in the Netherlands between 1917 and 1931, who sought to embrace social order and spiritual harmony through simple, formal means. Strangely, though, white the lessons of Modernism in general, and De Stijl in particular, have found their way into contemporary design education and practice, the formal principles upon which this thinking was based remain virtually absent in the design of new media.

In 1915 and 1916, M. H. J. Schoenmaekers, the theosophist, published The New Image of the World and Principles of Plastic Mathematics, in which he suggested that reality might best be expressed as a series of opposing forces – a formal polarity of horizontal and vertical axes and a juxtaposition of primary colours. Schoenmaekers posited a new image of the world, expressed with ‘a controllable precision, a conscious penetration of reality and exact beauty.’ Not only is his statement refreshingly straightforward, read literally, it also provides an inspirational way of deconstructing the complex role that design plays in our increasingly digital culture. Most important, perhaps, to the designer lamenting the intractable restrictions of today’s technological climate, the formal language of De Stijl – and its celebration of the purity of the x/y axis – is inspiration indeed.

Utility and utopia
As the primary theoretical influence behind the De Stijl movement, Schoenmaekers’ thinking paralleled the evolution of a reductive visual vocabulary that embraced ideals at once utilitarian and utopian: with this vocabulary, artists such as Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg produced work which, in its spare elegance, has had a lasting effect on twentieth-century aesthetics. Today, their ideas are surprisingly relevant as they, and the work they influenced, offer a deceptively simple way to think about the formal, temporal and cultural phenomena that collectively define new media. In an effort to resolve the relationships between structural form and transient content, between cyclical time and infinite space, and between a message transmitted and a message received, the propositions of De Stijl suggest an ideal paradigm with which to evaluate the role and effectiveness of design in an electronic age.

To practitioners of De Stijl, the reduction of pure form was considered a symbolic translation of complex cultural ideals. While they followed no notable political cause per se – unlike Malevich and the Russian Constructivists, or Marinetti and the Italian Futurists – they argued for a kind of convergent thinking that links their ideas unequivocally to the culture of new media. The goals of elevating society, of bridging the gap between the collective and the individual, and of gesturing to a kind of utopian ideal were expressed enthusiastically in the work, as well as in the writing of position papers, exhibition catalogues, commercial publications and other forms of propaganda. These manifestos are evocative reminders of De Stijl ideology: in their evangelism and rhetoric, they bear a strong resemblance to much of the propaganda espoused by our own ‘cyber’ culture. But, unlike contemporary media, the visual evidence of De Stijl thinking was both simple and sophisticated. Perhaps for this reason, it was also quite beautiful. Why have we since veered so far from the lessons of Modernism?

Architects of a new visual order
Today, as designers struggle to define better ways of representing ideas in two, three and four dimensional space, Schoenmaekers’ ideas, dating from over half a century ago, offers us a way to better understand and clarify these questions. To begin with, the question of ‘controllable precision’ suggests a standard for designers struggling to rationalise their role in the convergent morass of telecommunications known as ‘new media’. Here, the very value of design is in question: as interpersonal exchanges coexist and multiply in a landscape laden with electronic options, one might argue that the function of design is marginalised, if not rendered entirely obsolete; or that the role of the designer itself is imperilled. We have perhaps unwittingly ceded ‘control’ – to our computers, to our audience, to the demands of a new and increasingly global economy. But the opportunity to define, even celebrate, ‘precision’ lies at the heart of what we can and should do. This elevates and objectifies our role, and redefines our mission as architects of a new visual order.

‘Controllable precision’ is, of course, impossible in an environment characterised by such random and perpetual change. But it is possible to think about design as a system of limitations, and to consider the role of the designer as one who articulates that system. Establishing a grid, understanding the permutations of a template as a flexible armature within which information can be delivered, is a good example of the graphical application of such a system, in print or on screen. With the recent advances brought about by browser technologies such as frames (and more recently, borderless frames), a more resolved formal articulation of space is now possible on the screen, making ‘controllable precision’ achievable.

This system – the establishment of the template, its formal attributes, and its compositional potential for iterative recombination – is not only the principal function of design in on-line media, but its greatest contribution. Conversely, what happens between the frames is not: the indulgent, memory-intensive aesthetic that evidences itself on many proprietary Web sites only serves to demonstrate how technical complexity short-circuits the ‘experience’. With error prompts pre-empting any opportunity for theatrical or visual impact, the mood is irrevocably broken, an enduring reminder that a shield of intrusive technology lies between you and your screen. This is the ‘interface’ at its worst: simply stated, this is what happens when design gets in the way.

Alternatively, the simplicity that characterised De Stijl thinking, and the order that can be traced in Dutch painting as far back as the seventeenth century, suggest a better model for organising space and achieving visually engaging and functionally successful solutions. In his own work, van Doesburg identified this purist reduction as an attempt to ‘expel the narrative’. In this view, the designer is the director rather than the actor, and design is less about experience and more about framing the experience. The success of this proposition rests largely in rethinking ways of articulating space, and suggests that we reconsider the screen as a kind of picture plane. To challenge the picture plane is to radically adjust our thinking about what a screen is, and what a computer is, and what role design plays in the mix. Central to this is a formal appreciation of Modernism and an understanding of its lingua franca: geometry. ‘You can’t criticise geometry,’ noted Paul Rand. ‘It’s never wrong.’

This appeal to Modernism, however, has been virtually overlooked in the incunabula of new media design. Today, the prevailing aesthetic leans away from realism, opting instead for a primitive sampling of poorly rendered, often cartoon-like illustrations masquerading as familiar, habitable spaces. Worse still, with the advent of Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML), what was objectionable in two dimensions becomes horrifying in three and four dimensions. Here, Schoenmaekers’ notion of “penetrating reality” suggests an intriguing alternative to such tiresome examples of forced and phoney simulacra. The opportunity to reconstruct reality rejects the overused models and metaphors that currently exist – the faux street scene, the mock desktop – in favour of a simplified and more flexible visual vocabulary, based on simple geometric form.

The embrace of infinite space
The suggestion that geometry can address the human condition lies at the core of classic architectural discourse, and is everywhere present in the ideology and practice of De Stijl. Described as ‘neo-plastic’, architecture in this period favoured a kind of elementary constructivism evidenced in anti-decorative, asymmetrical and colourful explorations of spatial displacement. Such experiments – the famous red, blue, and yellow Rietveld chair (1918), for example – indicated the extent to which simple form could explode with new and provocative possibility. Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942) was an attempt to codify the dynamic pulse of the city through the restrained use of horizontal and vertical lines, the expression of two opposing forces. It is no coincidence that this work gestured to the space beyond the limits of the canvas: indeed, the desire to embrace infinite space was in no small way influenced by Einstein’s theories of relativity, published earlier in the century.

Like the De Stijl artists, we can identify with the imposed rectilinear parameters circumscribing our work, as we struggle to define the opportunities for creative expression on screen. We can share their pointed fascination with infinite space as we explore the limitless real-estate options introduced by the phenomenon of cyberspace. But unlike them, our work today has yet to reveal itself as inspired, informed by their legacy, their thinking, the empirical evidence of their prolific labours. In the end, as reality itself called into question by the notion of virtual space and the users (read audiences) who dwell there, ‘beauty’ (not to mention ‘exact beauty’) is in the eye of the beholder. This is, of course, the true goal of interactivity: designers often struggle with the intangible temporal component implicit in these new media, where experience is meant to be customised and mutable. How can design address consistency – of place, identity and need – and still speak to the perpetual changes that characterise the transient nature of these experiences?

De Stijl practitioners concerned themselves with resolving the relationship between the static and the dynamic. Their interest in challenging the formal interplay of geometric elements suggests that the orchestration of components can simultaneously gesture to the fixed and to the flexible, to the precision as well as the elusiveness of ‘exact beauty’. In this view, the same reductive visual vocabulary can not only support seemingly conflicting ideals (static/kinetic, variable/constant, universal/unique) but can perhaps begin to suggest more innovative solutions for structuring new systems, mapping new spaces and reaching new audiences along the way.

Jessica Helfand, graphic designer and design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 24 vol. 6 1997

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.