Looking back on Classics in the Era of Digital

The Duality of Design #1

In this series, we will explore the duality of design and examine various aspects. To start off, we will discuss the notable contrast between digital design which emerged prominently around the year 2000, and classical design.

The transition from Classical to Digital

John Maeda, a renowned designer and pioneer in the fusion of design and technology, classified the field of design into “Classical Design,” “Design Thinking,” and “Computational Design” in his 2016 Design in Tech Report. This classification brought widespread recognition of the significant shift in the skills required of designers before and after the digital era.

I, myself received design education around the year 2000, a time when the transition from classical to digital design was strongly felt. When I started studying at school, the focus was on hand-drawn sketches, drafting, and creating mock-ups. However, after entering the workforce, the tools and methods shifted to working with a mouse in front of a display.

For example, the process of making a presentation panel has changed in many ways.

Before presentation software became prevalent, we would print text using a computer, develop photographs from film, and create sketches by hand. We would then cut and paste these elements onto A1-sized boards using scissors and glue. As software improved and scanner and printer capabilities increased, we began outputting larger sizes and pasting them onto panels. Nowadays, projector projection and display sharing have become standard.

One of my presentation panels from school. Putting texts and printed pictures by glue was the standard at the time.

I have had very few opportunities to be involved in print design recently. However, due to my experiences during my student days, I still tend to think about flat compositions based on paper sizes. For generations that came into design after the widespread adoption of the internet and smartphones, the basic concept of flat composition is within the confines of the display. Layouts and compositions are assumed to change based on display settings. I often feel the difference between classical design thinking and digital design thinking, especially among those who have experienced both eras.

Coexistence of Classical and Digital

Currently, many businesses have transitioned to digital, and the proportion of designers involved in the digital industry has increased. In Japan, “product design” is used to refer to the design of industrial products, but in recent years, it has been increasingly used for digital products such as web services and smartphone apps.

The spread of digital in all industries is inevitable in the future, though not everything will be replaced by digital, and classical domains will continue to exist as a market. 

For example, while the issuing of newspapers has decreased, they are still widely read. The design of printed newspapers is carefully considered within the constraints of limited page space and color options. In the digital realm, designs that leverage characteristics such as searchability and readability are sought after. The visual readability required for newspaper design is different, and there are still many people who find reading on paper easier. Even if the content is the same, the experiential value for readers varies.

The newspaper layout differs greatly when compared to the online newspaper

As design becomes more digital, categories associated with words like “classical” and “traditional” have established themselves as markets. Examples include classical music, classic hotels, classic cars, traditional performing arts, traditional crafts, and classical literature.

Furthermore, classical elements serve as a place for those who have been involved in the industry for a long time to return to. Musicians may draw inspiration from timeless styles such as classical and jazz when exploring new compositions, and hotel owners may reconsider their services by looking back at the practices of previous generations. Such anecdotes are often heard.

In this way, classical and digital are not binary opposites but rather a relationship of coexistence and continuous learning from the past.

What is the Classical in Digital Design?

Let’s consider what “classical in digital design” means. When it comes to design for industrial products, it is relatively easy to identify the relationship between cutting-edge design and classical design. The principles of Bauhaus from over 100 years ago still have a strong influence today, and Jonathan Ive, who designed for Apple, has mentioned being heavily influenced by Dieter Rams, a designer for Braun nearly half a century ago.

A radio designed by Dieter Rams

But what about digital design? While design for print materials like newspapers and advertisements has continued from the past to the present, it seems that the roots of digital design are slightly different. While there may be some visual similarities, print design lacks the element of interaction, and digital design lacks elements such as printing techniques and paper characteristics.

At the same time, it is also not accurate to say that the designs that emerged during the early days of the Internet have become the classics of digital design. This is because they are not continuously used today. Newspapers still exist, but the user interfaces of computers used in the 80s and 90s are rarely seen today.

Contrarily, I believe that video games have the potential to become classics. The fundamentals of play have not changed significantly for half a century, and interaction is designed through the television screen and controller. Alternatively, if we consider a broader perspective that doesn’t limit the medium to graphics or monitors, devices with interactive interfaces may also be considered. Control panels for elevators or interfaces for driving cars, for example, could be seen as classical in their own right.

The interface of elevators hasn’t changed much

Classics for Continuing Digital Design

As technology continues to evolve, there is a possibility that the current standard methods of design expression, tools, and platforms may undergo a complete transformation. 

Even from 2000 to the present, there have been several significant shifts in the digital landscape, such as the rise of device tools like smartphones, changes in operating systems, and advancements in programming. Alongside these changes, the skills required of designers have also evolved.

If one becomes too dependent on current expressions and tools, it can become difficult to adapt to new markets and acquire new skills and knowledge. For designers to continue their activities in the medium to long term, I believe it is important for them to be able to return to the classics.

This applies not only to designers but also to musicians, writers, researchers, and anyone pursuing expertise in their respective fields. It is common for individuals to reach a point in their careers where they can’t see the way forward or fall into a slump. At such times, returning to the classics and learning from the past can open up new paths for the future. In essence, classics serve as a foundation for the ideologies and attitudes within a specific domain.

For the future development of digital design, it is important to not only focus on design within the display but also pay attention to interactions and philosophies that have been ongoing for half a century. Understanding classics is a cross-generational endeavor, so designers who have experienced the transition from classical to digital, like myself, may have a role to play in conveying this knowledge.

Why not take a moment to reflect on what classics mean to you?

・・・

The Duality of Design
illustration by Ryotaro Nakajima

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Written By

Ryotaro Nakajima

Ryotaro is a Design Director at Concentrix Catalyst (former Tigerspike). With a background in industrial product design and research in human factors and usability, he specializes in designing product strategies and experiences that connect users and businesses. He is the author of the book “Behavioral Economics Notes for Business Design” published in 2021. He was born in Hokkaido.

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