Web design inspiration from the art of Mark Rothko

The following is an article written by Ethan, one of our designers / developers, exploring a source of his web design inspiration from modern art. It's a great example of how other industries feed into the field of web design. We hope you enjoy!

"We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."Rothko

The first time I read this quote from Mark Rothko's manifesto on art I was struck by its remarkable resonance with my style and approach to web design. While Rothko's creative philosophy is in many ways antithetical to end-user design, there is something valuable to our trade that can be distilled from his tenets, and they are deceivingly simplistic at first sight. And that is how his work ties into web design; both the artist and the designer carry the task of creating deceiving simplicity. 

The Simple Expression of Complex Thought

When you're designing a website, it isn't good enough to say, "This site's content is complex, so the design will be complex as well." The most basic goal of any type of design, and often the most difficult to achieve, is conveying the difficult in a simple way. Simply offering information without crafting that information into a more accessible form is not design at all. And by implication, there are thus varying degrees of "design." For an example, check out Dear American Airlines by Dustin Curtis.

Rothko's work could be described as approaching the most simple form that art can take. Perhaps you are even irritated that its simplicity can be called art at all. And that would bring us to a very important point to understand, which is that simplicity is not the same as simplistic (see False Simplicity from the UsabilityPost). For example, Apple released the iPod in 2001. Its immediate success was a powerful testimony to how people universally appreciate easier access to whatever it is they want. It is unlikely anyone ever mocked  the iPod saying that its simplicity was evidence that very little thought went into it. To the contrary, it furthered Apple's reputation for being innovative with user-friendly design. In the same way, Rothko's art is built to give people easier access to emotion.

The Large Shape Has the Impact of the Unequivocal

Rothko’s goal wasn’t to convey an express message, but to evoke emotion and support a more visceral message. That is why he resorted to using fundamental forms. Rothko removed distracting elements from the canvas so that the viewer would be more open to the emotional effects. This is obviously a little different from web design where we always have an express message for the user to receive or task for the user to complete. 

Our design becomes active as we "paint" behind the message, nurturing and supporting it as it conveys our calculated emotional and psychological cues. Too many focal points can destroy the user's focus because they become distracted. Creating relatively spacious areas with clearly delineated borders helps to keep the user's attention focused where it needs to be.

Here are two examples from designs on our system that could be said to be illustrating these ideas. The design on the left shows a realistic wooden frame. Within that frame are large, clearly defined areas that are both visual and informative. The goal is to design so that users know as intuitively as possible how to find what they are looking for. The example on the right is similar but without a physical frame. The basic design features harmonious, vibrant color fields with clear borders and plenty of space.

Flat Forms Destroy Illusion, Reveal Truth

You wouldn’t want every design for the rest of your career to use only flat, two-dimensional forms, but Rothko's work in this area still makes a valid a point. Painting in his time was much about technical skill in reproducing life-like spaces and figures. His goal in using “flat forms” was to get rid of distractions in the art (distractions being relatable, real-life objects) and to emphasize basic forms in order to evoke emotion and send low-level cues to the viewer. The goal here is to send subtle signals that call viewers to respond on their own terms. Their responses come from within themselves, so they trust it. Kinda like in Inception.

Excessive embellishment with visual elements that don’t support the goal and message of the content plants tiny seeds of doubt in the user’s mind. “Oh look at that flourish there. What’s that for? Oh... nothing.” At best it becomes a distraction for the user. At worst, the flourish begins to sow seeds of distrust in the site's design, eroding the credibility it worked to gain.

In Conclusion

I hope you've enjoyed this article's exploration of the inspiration I have received from the work of Mark Rothko. Art in all of its forms is tied together by common principles, and our web designs can only get better as we learn from the masters. Do you have an artist that inspires your work? If so, let us know in the comments!