Ask any designer to tell you what the hallmarks of current digital user experience are, and you’ll probably hear words like “minimal”, “functional” and “elegant”. Form follows function. Less is more. Simplicity and clarity of purpose have become synonymous with “good” design.
But there’s nothing modern about this school of thought. Over two hundred years ago, a very similar approach emerged from a most unlikely source. Not some great seat of learning, nor a maverick polymath, but a small group of religious dissidents in New England.
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, better known as the Shakers, founded their first permanent communities in the United States in the middle of the 18th century. At one time they had over 6000 followers, but these days they’re rather on the fringe of Christianity, with only two adherents left alive (and I’m not one of them).
Despite their small numbers, the influence of the Shakers’ innovations was enormous. From circular saws to washing machines and mail-order seeds, their inventions are still around today. Their furniture, in particular their ingenious hinged-back chair, is revered and sought-after still.
As a community, the Shakers may have had their shortcomings (it’s hard to sustain a community in which everybody’s celibate), but as designers, they definitely seemed to be on to something. What can we learn from them today?
Have a clear purpose.
The goal of the Shakers was nothing less than to build heaven on Earth. They believed that God dwelled within every person, and that through their work they should strive to bring about perfection, to restore the world from disorder and decay.
Every ritual they performed, every building they created, every object they designed, was an expression of this goal, and an attempt to get closer to it. It’s the constant thread that ran through their entire way of life, and it made their communities seem remarkably consistent, focused, designed.
Try to do the same in your own work. Define a purpose for whatever you’re trying to create, in as few words as possible. At every step in the design process, ask whether what you’re creating directly furthers that purpose. Keep checking that everything is in line with that vision and you won’t go far wrong.
Take that purpose to its logical conclusion.
Everybody in a Shaker village worshipped together, so they needed enough space for hundreds of people to meet. In the 18th century, a hall big enough to accommodate a whole village would normally have a roof supported by large wooden pillars. But this was no good for the Shakers, because their religious services involved an unusual amount of dancing and moving around, and pillars would be hazardous. So they invented a kind of arched roof which enabled them to safely whirl around the meeting house.
Fond as they were of dancing, the congregation couldn’t be on its feet the whole time, so they needed somewhere to sit. But traditional church pews are bulky and heavy, and hard to move out of the way when it’s time to hit the floor. So the Shakers needed chairs. Hundreds of lightweight chairs, which anybody could pick up and move out of the way. And because they are an egalitarian community, everybody’s chair needed to be identical. It’s a problem which just screams for a mass production solution, and unsurprisingly, the Shakers got extremely good at making chairs. Their favoured design was simple, fast to produce and used easily-obtained local materials.
But where were they going to put the chairs to get them out of the way while they’re, well, shaking? They could stack them, but then they would be back with the columnar obstacles they went to such lengths to eliminate. So they had a better idea: hang them on the wall, from racks of evenly-spaced pegs. This led to pared-down chair designs made from light wood, so anybody could lift them and hang them up… And they hung the chairs upside-down so the seats don’t get dusty.
Now that they were hanging up, the floor was clear, so they could give it a good old sweeping. We’re striving for heavenly perfection in all things, remember? But this hall’s big, so it takes a lot of work to get it really clean. Thus the Shakers invented flat brooms that swept the floors faster and better.
One invention follows from another, all born from a single goal. Unified design as the result of a unified purpose, with everything they made a manifestation of their beliefs.
Open your doors.
Although the Shakers’ policy of celibacy made it difficult to sustain a community, it had a major upside: they needed to keep accepting newcomers. These people came from many different places, and many different backgrounds. Each of them brought skills and experiences which contributed to the community: new farming techniques, expertise in engineering, and of course, advanced carpentry.
There were no trade secrets in a Shaker village; they shared their knowledge as they shared their food and lodgings, for the benefit of all, and towards a common purpose. As a result, their communities were notably more prosperous and efficient than their neighbours.
Embrace innovation like the Shakers did. Always be on the lookout for new techniques, new approaches, new ways of thinking which might improve your craft. And in return, share your knowledge so that others might take it further than you could by yourself.
Spurn ornamentation, but not beauty.
“Don’t make something unless it is both made necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”
Shaker designs tend to be simple. Partly because that’s what usually works best, but also because they associated flashy decoration with the sin of pride. However, this doesn’t mean that there was no place for beauty in their work; they simply found other ways to express it. The focus of their effort was on overall form and proportions, as well as the quality of materials and craftsmanship. Thus beauty was a property inherent in their designs, rather than a treatment applied to it.
This principle is just as valid for digital services. Gimmicks and fripperies weigh down your designs and get in the way of the user’s goals. Serve their needs first, and only then seek to introduce beauty in your work by adding clarity, smoothness, and elegance wherever you can.
“Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.”
All this simplicity, efficiency and harmony didn’t emerge overnight, of course. Their earthly paradise always remained just out of reach, which meant they had to keep striving to get closer to it. This meant constantly honing skills, but also continually improving their designs, which for them meant making them simpler, less ostentatious, more honest. Gentle, steady progress was the order of the day, for God dwelled in the details, and through their work they sought to understand him better.
Futurice isn’t a religious organisation, but like the Shakers, we believe that the act of working on something is valuable in itself. That’s one reason why we tell our customers to love the problem, not the solution.
This is well worth remembering. As designers, we often tend to reach for the stars in the hope of stumbling upon a revolutionary breakthrough that will make us famous. But the road to everlasting glory is littered with the wreckages of grand ideas, and the burned-out minds that tried to realise them. Unglamorous as it may be, the Shakers knew that patience and persistence were the keys to salvation.