Programs and Pragmatism

a post on Process

02/03/2013 · On a train from Brighton · In any field of design, programs are a set of boundaries a designer builds around oneself for a specific solution. Style guides, pattern libraries, grid systems, color schemes, or an application of antiphonal geometry (thanks, Owen) could all be labeled as design programs. The term “Program” in this sense (or “Programme” for the rest of the English-speaking world), was first applied by Karl Gerstner and is elaborated upon in his book Designing Programmes (1964).

AisleOne has a brilliant celebration of Gerstner’s work that thoroughly explores this concept. From the article:

“A programme is a systematic approach to solving a problem which comes from an understanding of a problem. It is important to note that the approach is responsive and often unique to the specific problem.”

…and later:

“Programmes are a way to introduce economy into a design process. Gerstner asserted that programmes are a means of developing a structure to be creative in. While a structure can be seen as limiting, it can also be seen as establishing the parameters of a design problem which can keep a designer focused. […] This time saved in the early stages can then be used later on to refine and improve concepts.”

Herrings are red, Designers are blue

Recent advancements in web design thinking – such as responsive web design and grids for layout – have led some designers to feel such limitations might be sucking the soul out of our work. The zeitgeist of “flat” aesthetics, though, is likely caused by pragmatic pressures, such as:

  1. Bandwidth limitation. Dodgy connections abound in the mobile environment, forcing design strategies to lean conservative on asset downloads and page weight. Aesthetic stalwarts such as images, icons, and textures all have serious performance implications.
  2. Development fragmentation. These same aesthetic elements are also victims of fluctuating development implementations (both client and server-side) aimed at problems that have yet to be fully defined. The thick bracken of responsive image overhead for even a simple content site could convince many a smart designer to force quit Photoshop and back away slowly.
  3. Responsive web design is damned hard. Tools like Gridset (shameless) go a long way to helping designers think responsively, but we are just not that practiced thinking across myriad resolutions and pixel densities. Disciplines like “Math” bare their complicated visages. Reducing this complexity to patterns is a natural response, and the solutions will grow more spirited as we better understand the problems.

Not a single one of these constraints is an excuse for soulless design, but they are contributing to industry shifts in design strategy.

The one thing that can solve most of our problems…

Programs are not a replacement for design. There is no ready-made grid or perfect ratio that will make a design sing; any successful program is tuned to the unique needs of a project. By front-loading much of the design thinking to the initial phases of a project, programs free time for creativity to flourish in the areas where innovation is appropriate, and allow designers to leap beyond the infinite chasm of a blank canvas.


A set of well-considered programs build an inherent harmony across a design system that is not so much seen but felt. If that’s not soul, I don’t know what is.

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