Design Semantics: why simple gives way to complex

We return once more to my desperate attempt to make design semantics interesting to people outside the design profession.

1970 Bentley T-1**: source

Far from being a distant irrelevance to those practicing design, researchers cotton on to things which merely take time to be understood.  If we are wondering today why current design is so over-wrought, there are those to whom this will not be a surprise.  Should you be so diligent as to

2018 Chevrolet Impala: source

read this article by Dagmar Steffen you will get the full picture. I believe the article dates from about 2008/2009. It draws on the Offenbach theory of product semantics. We discussed this a while back (allowing me a chance to show a lovely black Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow).

The article presented this diagram (you remember that):

And if we look at the category “formal and aesthetic functions” we find that amongst the means available to a designer to signal a new products is the possibility to vary these antagonistic parameters, order and complexity.

Order and complexity: source

The key point of the Offenbach product semantic theory is that “innovation – both technical and socio-cultural innovation – is communicated by means of product language. In this respect, the designer plays a crucial role in the innovation process.” Where there is no discernable technical innovation, designers must turn to formal means to communicate newness.

The unhappy part here is that this means doing something formally different and if the existing designs are calm and orderly then the opposite will follow.

1976 BMW 525

Although this process is not binary. What we have seen is a gradual move from the left side of the diagram (simple) to the right (complex) and the swing has not finished.

Historical examples of the formal shift would be the marked tendency of Modernism to use very simple forms. In this instance the very best examples of Modernism made a huge impact compared to even very good classical architecture. All one had to do was put a plain concrete and glass building into an existing street of brick and stucco constructions and there would be a building of stark formal distinction.

The author Dagmar Steffen points out that after fifty years of design reduction in architecture there was a turn towards complixity and decor:

” During the decades between the 1920s and the 1960s, the modern avant-garde was quite successful in communicating the innovative character of modern architecture and product culture. In all fields of design the complexity of traditional forms was replaced by a high order of simple geometric forms and the elimination of ornamentation, which contributed to this as well. Only after the International Style became dominant did high order turn into the negative. Concurrent formal means that contribute to high order had forfeit their power to communicate newness and innovation. Thus, in an environment where the dominant style is characterised by order, its antagonist, i.e., complexity, regains the ability to draw attention. Accordingly, in the 1970’s and 1980’s the upcoming partial styles such as High-Tech, Alchimia or Memphis showed complexity.”

There were intricate arguments given in the 1970s about the justification for a return to complexity. I wonder if they were post-justification i.e. the architects could not do any more simple forms and so turned back to decorative ones and then looked for a reason (they called it Post-Modernism) to justify it. That kind of reasoning sounds a lot better than saying simply “we needed to do something different”. On reflection I think that was all that drove the change. They got bored with simple.

The article ends with a point that expresses something I have been thinking for a while: “Furthermore, at least one century of intensive searching for new, distinctive and surprising aesthetical effects is behind us. It seems that almost the full range of formal means has been tested and checked out. The creation of artefacts that represent a striking formal contrast to the already existing is becoming increasingly difficult.” 

Absent technological change, it will be hard for designers in the automotive sector to keep pushing the trend to increased complexity before coming back to the territory they tried to discredit, namely calm and elegant shapes.

** Now just look at that Bentley. That embodies the finest of English styling. Whether or not you own one of those it is an object of very considerable beauty.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

7 thoughts on “Design Semantics: why simple gives way to complex”

  1. Andrew Kourris
    7:59 AM (2 minutes ago)
    to me

    If I’ve understood correctly, Richard, your point is something like this: simplicity (let’s call it modernism) was, for a time, the designer’s means of communicating newness. As time passed and technical innovations that speak for themselves slowed, complexity for its own sake had to be re-introduced in order to communicate newness to the public (which we’ll call post-modernism, though of course that term carries other meaning). We are not yet at the end of this pendulum swing, though that end is pretty much within sight.

    There’s definitely a lot of truth in this, and the slowing pace of technical innovation at the core of car design (as distinct from infotainment) must be considered a huge factor. Thing is, I’m not sure it’s the only factor. The reason I say that is this: “baroque” design (or post-modern in this context if you prefer) need not be so crap. It need not result in a series of cars with identical aggressive noses and rails, surfacing devoid of tension, and totally unreadable silhouettes. And yet, that is where we are, and it’s roughly where we are with architecture as well, though the client/designer divide seems much stronger in that field (a good thing). Now, why is that? I hesitate to suggest that I know the answers, but to suggest a few: economics (if everyone’s doing something, it’s cost can be accurately calculated); risk-aversion (there are no William Lyons characters today, all car firms are run to make money first and foremost, usually for shareholders); globalisation (can’t be understressed, this. Even leaving aside the oft-maligned Chinese, barring a period in the eighties the American market has never much cared for subtle pieces of Pininfarina-type modernist design, always preferring cars to look like either white-goods or jet-bombers); politics (this is a dangerous world with a lot of media to tell you just how dangerous it is all the time, a weaponised car seems only natural). Those are just the points that occur to me immediately and seem easy to evidence, there must be others that go deeper. For instance, I do wonder whether the rise of women as a gigantic market (just as big as men?) for cars has had a substantial effect, for example by making cars that look like they can stand up to other cars on the road. Just a thought.

    Where I object to modern design (architecture and automotive) is not really in complexity per se, but in its lack of competence. Consider the Gothic Arch. A very simple and structurally necessary shape, from which complex buildings can result. In these days of unstressed skins and funky materials, think how many other shapes could be motivically explored as the Gothic Arch was, and what do we get? Random cladding. I blame the customer, both for cars and for buildings. Aesthetic beauty is not prioritised, generally, only basic fitness for purpose, visual heft acting as intimidation of the viewer, and cost-reduction.

    1. That post is better than my original article.

      Vis a vis buildings: yes, random cladding. There are a few architects who work creatively but for the most part the client and architect have almost no constraints other than price. Buildings tend to be built as free-standing boxes and since the surrounding buildings are randomly decorated, it´s hard to fit in and standing out means having a noisy exterior design. Buildings are not unlike toasters: a mechanism enclosed in a free-form casing. The major dividing character in buildings is whether they are industrial (no windows) or not industrial (windows). I am exaggerating somewhat, of course. Within the category non-industrial there aren´t really some many plausible formats either. Modernists wanted complete freedom to shape the buildings but people are still under 2 m tall and still need to be about (roughly 5 or 7 metres from daylight), still need stairs/lifts and toilets plus a place for vacuum cleaners.
      I recommend reading Roger Scruton´s books on architecture. Also Ralf Weber has a good if somewhat demandning book on the same theme, “On The Aesthetics of Architecture”.

  2. I’ve wondered whether all those folds and creases and obnoxiousness were inexpensive stamped in stiffening. This evil thought doesn’t explain full frontal aggression or floating roofs.

  3. Excellent comments. Pursuing the vehicle theme end of modern design , three things seemed to happen simultaneously early this new century. In the US, the bunker mentality began with higher side sheet metal and less glass height, typified by the then new Chrysler Pacifica. Another was BMW deciding to adorn sides with deep slashes like those atop an artisanal rustic loaf, while also adding the Bangle Butt to at least one poor unsuspecting chassis while generally plumping up cars for visual mass. (Put a newish Fiesta alongside a 15 year old Corolla to see the blimp effect of some modern cars which look as though they need a thorough burping)

    But it was Audi who had the master brainwave of being inspired by 1930’s posters where a black car silhouette emerges from roiling clouds of orange dust, the perspective being of a thrusting snout pointing up and to the left then tapering down to a tiny hindquarters with a distinct puff of exhaust. On a manic mission. The German imperial ground-pounder! Stick that giant fake proboscis grille on an A8 and gaze confidently down on your inferiors! Well, the truth is more prosaic apparently:

    Whatever, this was the genesis of the “get outta my way” look of front ends. All that was needed as time went by was to prop the grille up a bit more on the vertical and add squinty eyes of light with wide-spaced flared intake nostrils below them. The Eagle had landed.

    Today, less than 15 years on, the totally plebeian Toyota Camry, world’s most cost-engineered car, has a grille three-fourths the surface area of the front, upholstered in plastic of the quality used to hold choccies separate in a box. Spoiled only by a pimple logo, mounted cyclops-style dead centre upon fake wide drapes like an Olympic medal from the neck and shoulders of an athlete, it is otherwise moulded in the simple undulating rolls of the corrugated tin or plastic sheet commonly applied to garden shed roofs, available down the DIY shop in the high street. And most of it covers only plastic underneath, for the engine needs only a square foot of opening for cooling. Well done, there! An aesthetic delight. Add in squinty predatory eyeballs of the LED variety in various arrays and slashes and grasshoppers had better watch out! Lexus merely adds a prow of full beak to that, along with embellishment of Camry’s rather vestigial nostrils into full forward thrusts. Lovely. Let’s hunt down wayward peons of the lesser variety and cut ’em off at the knees. Aggression is too small a word to cover this effort. It’s batsh*t ridiculous.

    The Japanese were always keen to add a special bauble or two to the exterior, said to make it easier to spot car models in their bumper-to-bumper supposedly interminable city traffic jams. A bit of differentiation in the C-pillar cabin air-extractor design game. Then Toyota began to boast 25 years ago that nobody could make 3D curves in tin as complex as they could and get it all to fit nicely as in their Celica Gen 5, unblushingly labelled Super Round organic styling, and considering the die spring bend-back the Allegro suffered, they were probably spot on. Hyundai/Kia seem to have surpassed them in this facility, while the new Polo so chastised on these pages has lost the plot entirely dithering between camps of past and present.

    The front predator hawk-face is thus fairly new, unfortunately, and thus likely to remain and empower the forthcoming robotized autonomous EV proceeding with 100% compliance to the law to figuratively burst its surly bonds and break free at any moment, then to get down and boogie. Oh yeah. It is by sleight of hand like this and smartphones that society is pacified to ignore the awfulness of it all and prevent revolution. Interesting that Tesla have managed to avoid such excess so far and have deep windows – they look as I would expect pleasant modern cars would look like if those three things I mentioned at the start of this expose hadn’t happened at all. So there’s some hope. But the switch to raised two-box vehicles and the limiting factor this puts on styling differentiation means that only grilles, rear ends and side-scalloping is left upon which to doodle. One can only hope for future differentiations with taste, but what are the options, really? I know, individualized roof vinyl stick on art — landscapes by Constable fr’instance, perhaps realized on premium vehicles by laser-etchings on their panoramic glass roofs. For your permanent delectation.

    Folks, we done run out of new ideas.

    1. Bill – that was a virtuoso bit of wordsmithery. You had density of meaning and a narrative and a distinct authorial tone. I can hear that (I am being sincere) as a show-stopper monologue on a Cohen brothers film if they ever made one about people interested in cars. I sometimes wonder if the performer/audience relationship at this web-log is as I thought it was. I say a little about something and then the audience entertains me (and itself). We have a very fine little coterie here and comments such as this and the other good ones to are gratifying.

  4. It’s a beautiful world
    that 1970 Bentley T-1
    and those hidden door handles too
    It’s a beautiful world

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