Baldur Bjarnason

... works as a web developer in Hveragerði, Iceland, and writes about the web, digital publishing, and web/product development

These are his notes

I’m not the only one who finds app design formalism to be boring

“No More Boring Apps - ANDY.WORKS”

“Despite being perhaps the largest professional creative field today, Product Design seems to be missing something fundamental that exists in every other design field.”

There are three explanations for the design wasteland that is modern app design. All three are probably true at the same time.

  1. Apple, Google, et al. had a solid go at commodifying apps and UX design.
  2. The education, training, and recruitment processes in UX design collapsed under excessive demand the same way that front end dev training collapsed.
  3. This particular swing of the formalist-romanticist pendulum swung particularly hard in the formalist direction this time around.

For those of you who didn’t study art or literary history: design and the creative arts in the west have tended to cycle between formalist movements, where perfection can be found in pure structure, and romanticist movements that maintain that meaning and utility largely resides in society outside of the work. Most other cultures tend not to have these cycles and instead have multiple concurrent cultural traditions going on at the same time. Which is where we’re heading, in general, because of globalisation, but it’ll take a while for the West’s nonsense to peter out, as usual.

We’ve gone through these cycles a dozen times in drama, design, art, and literature. We’ve been going through a formalist reaction to the romanticist postmodern movements that defined the 80s and 90s. If you were wondering why movies in the twenty teens all had a similar structure, whereas those in the 90s and 2000-2010 had more formulas going around and most of them hinged around an obsession with cinematic intertextuality, it isn’t just because everybody first loved Quentin Tarantino and then hated him. It wasn’t just a question of money although money tends to favour formalism/modernism as it tends to commodify the field.

UI design has just gone through a similar cycle and we’re now starting to see a push for it to cycle back into letting designers be more playful.


What I’ve found interesting about the current formalist iteration is that they’ve formalised the media property cultural reference. It isn’t a coincidence that Disney’s Marvel movies didn’t reference the Fox X-Men movies, even obliquely, until they owned fox.

To put it more plainly: Deadpool is a postmodernist movie and in many ways a stylistic throwback to earlier trends. If you wanted to be unkind you’d call it a (cultural) living fossil. Almost every other big studio movie these days are ultra-modernistic exercises in formula and structure.

End Aside