Digital platforms show many similarities with architectural buildings. Digital ecosystems are closely related to urban planning. By drawing a parallel between UX design and architecture, it appears that style, conviction, and personal signature are underexposed in a digital world in which the concept of the 'user' prevails and results in digital homogeneity. Digital designers can learn a lot from the so-called 'starchitects', architects who have been given star status by the distinct style of their buildings.
Starchitect is a combination of 'star' and 'architect' and refers to architects who have become idols through their 'wow factor architecture'. The public buildings of these architects are very outspoken and progressive design statements. Well-known starchitects are the modernist Frank Lloyd Wright (Guggenheim Museum, New York), the postmodernist Frank Gehry (Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao) and closer to home and in the here and now Rem Koolhaas (De Rotterdam) and Winny Maas (Depot Boymans van Beuningen).
The buildings mentioned are eccentric form statements that arise from the function of the building. Underlying the shape of the stacked sugar cubes of Rem Koolhaas' De Rotterdam is the idea of a vertical city, a building that unites various functions such as living, working, and relaxing. The spherical shape of the new Depot of the Museum Boymans van Beuningen also stems from the function of the building, a storage place for the museum collection. The basic idea, of making what is usually hidden publicly accessible, also translates to the façade that is made up of mirrors and the roof garden with a café-restaurant. This utilitarian approach ('form follows function') is closely related to the design of digital platforms, products, and services. These are also buildings with various functions that are mainly visited and used by people. The site structure and navigation of a website have the same function as the wayfinding in public buildings.
In two respects there are striking differences. Digital platforms are generally not outspoken style statements. Also, web designers tend to seem less engaged and ideologically inspired than architects. This can probably be explained by the immature status of the field and by the so-called Wiki mentality that is so strongly linked to the internet. There is a strong idea that the internet belongs to everyone and that also applies to the building of knowledge and the creation of the design. Not the expert is placed on a pedestal but the 'user'. According to creative technologist and the creator of the term VR, Jaron Lanier, this mindset leads to mediocrity on an unprecedented scale. The Wiki mentality hinders the maturing of the field and ensures retarded design. We are still a long way from starchitecture in digital design. In the next paragraph, we briefly dive into the history of 30 years of web design with the aim of getting a picture of the above claims. To what extent do style and ideology play a role in the digital industry?
The first-generation websites (Web1: 1990-2005) are mainly textual due to the slow bandwidths. The layouts look a lot like a typical case. All areas are filled with bits of navigation, information, and functionalities. A major revolution is taking place in the second generation of websites (Web2: 2005-2020). The layouts become 'responsive' and adapt to the often-mobile device of the user. The block boxes disappear and make way for spacious layouts with a focus on the legible text. Two styles alternate: 'skeuomorphic' and 'flat'. In a maturing industry, standards and design systems are being worked diligently with the aim of making the web more inclusive and user-friendly. We are now in the transition period to the algorithmic and immersive web (Web3:2020-). The flat A4 pages with a scrollbar will gradually give way to richer 3D experiences.
The history of web design, in a nutshell, shows above all a young still developing industry that is playing along with technological changes. Major players such as Apple and Google show great design gestures that point to the coming of age of digital design. However, these design frameworks are adopted so widely that a kind of digital unity sausage is created.
In 2019, Forrester published a report that talked about the lack of creativity and distinguished brand experiences in digital design. By addressing the same user cases, conducting generic user research, applying uniform UX patterns, and using identical content management systems, the design of digital platforms, products and services have acquired a homogeneous character. If you open a number of websites of some random fashion brands, banks, airlines, and even creative agencies and you think the logo away for a moment, you come to the conclusion that it is very difficult to identify the brand. This phenomenon is referred to as 'digital sameness' and has a negative impact on the operating results of large companies. The report is therefore an appeal to the creative industry to come up with more outspoken brand statements.
Forrester's famous report echoes in current trend reports. For example, in an 'Ideas Report' recently published by WeTransfer. Already on one of the first pages it is warned that creativity is under pressure and, a few pages away, even in the Western world is dying out. As an explanation, the risk-averse mindset of creatives in the West is mentioned. A little later, it turns out that this is mainly the white men of age. The report then navigates towards people of colour, women and non-binary people and people with a moral compass that apparently expects the creativity of tomorrow. The white men are also allowed to participate if they are willing to leave their ego behind: "The age of the creative ego is dying". These fine words and at the same time rather clichéd recommendations, in which creativity is linked to an underdog position and a moral compass, seem to be far removed from the previously discussed phenomenon of 'starchitecture' and will probably not take our field any further. The Forrester report calls in general terms for more creativity and outspoken brand statements. Exactly how that works is not clear.
The findings in all large-scale studies on the current status of digital design are more or less the same. Formulating solutions for breaking through digital homogeneity and showing more creativity is proving difficult. In the translation of abstract findings into concrete actions, the example of the starchitects offers us guidance. If we define starchitecture, apart from the perhaps negative connotation of the star status of architects, as showing conviction, personality, and style, this can be the solution for brands to achieve more distinctive and distinct digital brand experiences. The development of a personal signature and a conscientious mindset, the characteristics of starchitects, therefore deserves all the attention of the trainers of a new generation of digital creatives.
Starchitects show us how digital creatives can break through digital sameness and the lack of creativity and persuasion in the digital manifestation of brands. Digital designers, like architects, are primarily focused on designing utilitarian design in which the form arises from the function. Digital designers, however, largely turn to CX conventions for the form where starchitects dare to create a personal vision and style with their buildings. This is caused by a still-young industry with a dangerous and one-sided focus on collective knowledge and creativity, aptly referred to by Jaron Lanier as digital Maoism. It is time to leave the paradigm of the 'user' and collective creativity in the form of CX conventions behind us and bring more personality and vision into the design of a digital platform, product, or service so that these become real style statements just like the buildings shown below.
Sources Web Design 3.0: When Web Design Really Matters, Nicepage, 2021. (Url: https://nicepage.com/doc/20348/web-design-3-0-when-web-design-really-matters_) The History of Web Design (Infographic), Lindsay Kolowich, HubSpot Designers, 2015. (Url: https://designers.hubspot.com/blog/the-history-of-web-design-infographic) Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, Jaron Lanier, Edge 2006. (Url: https://www.edge.org/conversation/jaron_lanier-digital-maoism-the-hazards-of-the-new-online-collectivism) Starchitect, Wikpedia, 2022. (Url: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starchitect) Wolf Reicht Architects: Rock star buildings, Cornelia Brelowski, Discover Germany. (Url: https://www.discovergermany.com/wolf-reicht-architects/) WeTransfer Ideas Report 2021, Damian Bradfield, 2021. The Cost of Losing Creativity, Forrester, 2019. Digital Sameness, North Kingdom, SODA, 2020. (Url: https://www.sodareport.com/2020-editorials/digital-sameness) Skeuomorphic Design — A controversial UX approach that is making a comeback, Justin Baker, Muzli (Medium), 2017. (Url: https://medium.muz.li/skeuomorphic-design-a-controversial-ux-approach-that-is-making-a-comeback-a0b6e93eb4bb)
The Wiki mentality has led to mediocrity on an unprecedented scale
We are still a long way from 'starchitecture' in digital design.