The Shock of the New: Trouble in Utopia →

September 29, 2016 •

Thanks to Paul Robert Lloyd for introducing me to this video at Smashing Conf. It’s a segment from a 1980 BBC programme called “The Shock of the New” presented by Robert Hughes that discusses art and architecture in a new era of technological modernity. This particular segment is a harsh critique on the architectural design of the city of Brasília.

In the 1950s, Brazil decided to move their capitol from the coastal city Rio de Janeiro to forge a brand new city, Brasília. It was planned and developed by Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. By all accounts, it’s an amazingly logical, aspriational, and beautiful plan to organize a city by “sectors” with a public lawn in the middle leading up to the Capitol. The architecture bears repeating themes of big swooping arches and ramps, unifying the overall look and feel. A champion of modern design.

However, as Robert Hughes points out, while well designed… the city is actually terrible for people. It’s a city designed for the automobile. The story of Brasília is also covered in the 2011 Gary Hustwit documentary Urbanized. Human-centered architect Jan Gehl has this to say:

“Brasília was the ultimate modernistic city built on all the ideas of the modernistic manifests. It looks fantastic from the airplane, but if you are down at eye level on your feet going from one place to another, Brasília is a disaster. Every distance is too wide. Things are not connected.”

Harry Brignull of ClearLeft in his 90 Percent of Everything blog applies Jan Gehl’s user-level view to Web Design. In his talk, Paul Robert Lloyd made the connection from Brasília to the current trend of Styleguides and Design Systems. I love this connection. A lot of us are in the business of large-scale design system architecture. However, our tools, our marketing strategy, our architecture, our design, our code is a failure if it doesn’t work at the user level.

The risk can go both ways. Focus too small, like on optimizing a button or page, you sacrifice the consistency of the network of content. As Robert Hughes put it, you “design for single not multiple meanings”. Focus too wide, like on the 10,000 foot level, you don’t see people just structure.

Thinking about all this, how to maintain a user-centered design and architecture, I’m reminded of the philosophy built into design of the World Wide Web:

Consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity

… Aahhh… that’s it.