This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus School of Design, a German art school operational from 1919 until 1933. Through ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ ('total art' or the 'synthesis of art'), it sought to bring together the disciplines of art, design and architecture under one roof. Despite its relatively short tenure, the Bauhaus style would go on to profoundly influence modernist art, design and architecture throughout the rest of the 20th century and beyond, producing multiple instances of design that many would consider to be ‘timeless’.
'Timeless design' is a bit of a buzzword that gets thrown around haphazardly. Clients and designers alike may refer to a piece of design as ‘timeless’, but when pressed for a concise description of what constitutes ‘timelessness’, the articulation of this quality often leaves a lot to be desired. This is where some of the foundational tenets of Bauhaus can help shed some light. I believe there are two keystone design principles from the Bauhaus school that creates the quality of ‘timelessness’ in design.
By prioritising function over form, the purpose of a piece of design ultimately decides its final shape and form.
By eliminating unnecessary ornamentation, only the fundamental elements of the design remain.
Timeless design is functional, no-nonsense design. It is the result of a process of careful consideration and thoughtful distillation of something down to its core essence. Timelessness is the concept of ‘less is more’, executed with a clear purpose, learned discipline and masterful craft.
To test the robustness of this theory, I explored the antipode of timeless design — design trends. Trends are defined as ‘a general direction in which something is developing or changing’, or ‘a current style or fashion’. As opposed to enduring, design trends are mercurial, ever-changing and subject to the times. Trendlist.org is a great website that documents trends in graphic design. Interestingly, there is a striking parallel between the bell curve of the technology adoption lifecycle and the lifecycle of graphic design trends.
There is a lifecycle to aesthetic trends — a style will go begin to go out of fashion once it reaches saturation in the market. But timeless design, as the name suggests, retains its virtue regardless of changing tastes. This explains why the principles of form over function and the omission of ornamentation contribute so heavily to the quality of ‘timelessness’. Ornamentation is a vessel for stylistic trends. As a consequence, unnecessary ornamentation (and therefore stylistic trends) rarely contributes anything to the functional aspects of a piece of design.
Remember the loud, garish design aesthetic prevalent in the 80s and 90s? This neon-laden bombastic sensibility had a name – Memphis design. Its popularity amongst designers was a response to the availability of new materials and manufacturing methods and a desire to explore these to their limits. Some would argue it was all style, no substance. Consequently, it went out of fashion as quickly it became fashionable. However, as we prepare to enter the 2020’s, the bright aesthetics of Memphis design seem to be making a comeback, highlighting the cyclical nature of ornamentation in design.
Like the tides, trends go out, trends come in. Contrast this with some of the fundamental design principles popularised by Bauhaus. While some decry a strictly functional approach to design due to its tendency to visual austerity, functional design never goes out of fashion. Because stuff that works well just... works, regardless of era.
When it comes time to design, refresh or redesign your brand’s visual identity, be aware of the timelessness or trendiness of the design solutions your agency or studio are proposing. Question those visual solutions. Does it serve form over function? Or is it fraught with unnecessary ornamentation that only serves a designer’s innate compulsion to ‘create something that looks cool’? Or, given your competitive landscape and brand strategy, will amplifying (or muting) the amount of ornamentation in your brand’s visual identity actually serve to create differentiation in your category?
Creating a compelling visual identity is no mean feat. Where your brand’s visual identity sits in the continuum of timelessness vs. trendiness should be informed by a robust brand strategy and a nuanced understanding of the visual landscape of your category. Embrace functional design, and be wary of ornamentation that doesn’t add any substance to your brand’s visual language.
1. ‘Timelessness' is the concept of ‘less is more’, executed with a clear purpose, learned discipline and masterful craft.
2. Like the tides, trends go out and trends come in, but functional design is enduring.
3. Timeless design can look austere, but this can also serve to differentiate your brand in your category. Likewise, amplifying the amount of ornamentation in your brand’s visual identity can do this just as well.