Back to basics: what did Bruno Munari leave for designers in “Design as art”?

Bruno Munari was an Italian artist, designer, and inventor who contributed fundamentals to many fields of visual arts and design. Munari, almost for whole his life has balanced between art and design worlds. Are they really two separate beings? Can valuable design also be attractive? How not to lose yourself completely in the world of design? According to Munari’s book I will try to answer this questions. Everything in relation to the user experience!

This photo shows a surprised man with a shell to his eye. This is Bruno Munari. He was born in 1907 and died in 1998.
Bruno Munari (1907–1998)
This is a road sign from the Louis XIV era. It is very decorative because it reflects the times in which it was created.

Do you know what that is? The crest? Not really. It is a road sign. Don’t worry if you’ve never seen that — it was in use more the 300 years ago. You might think it is too decorative, isn’t it? It depends. To decide, we have to go back to Ludwig’s for the 14th time. In 1700s in France were only a few roads. To use the road, it was necessary to have a horse and a carriage. This kind of equipment was available only for magnates. That means the roads were very exclusive, and partly that’s why the road signs were so decorative. Also, horse riding was much slower than car driving so it was easier to read then. The context is key.

A comparison of a road sign from more than three hundred years ago and this modern one.
The same meaning but in different times.

Nowadays, the way how we use roads has changed. People replaced the horses with cars, and the paved roads with asphalt and then adjusted the road signs accordingly. One change implies another. And what does this example tell us? It is good to have a holistic approach and embrace the changing world.

So design reflects the time when had been created. The visionary way of thinking is also a reflection of the current time — it is the desire to be prepared. Nobody wants to stay behind and to look at the future direction is one of the ways to deal with that.

The beginning of human—computer / smartphone interaction was also deeply rooted in reality. More than ten years ago, it was totally ordinary to reflect the reality in user interface. Time has changed users are well well acquainted with features like notes or voice recorder, and the appearance resembling physical objects is not necessary. But of course, it is a process and who knows — maybe in the future, we will start to produce physical things inspired by the appearance of digital products.

Interface appearance of the first iphones — strongly reflecting reality

Bruno Munari tells the story about the design process of fairytale book for children. The most important part in this process is observing and trying to understand kids’ perceptions and perspectives. Diving into why children behave exactly how they do is key — without it, we cannot find the perfect way how to tell stories to someone, who learns new things about the world all the time. Munari thinks about particular levels of understanding (depending on the age of the child).

For entering the world of a child you must at least sit on the ground without interfering with what he is doing and let him see that you are right next to him.

He also emphasizes who is the real stakeholder. That is extremely significant to balanced desires of users and clients. Bruno Munari is really frustrated about the situations when books for children are created more for make the parents eager to buy this product so at the end these kind of books are totally unsuited for kids. In general, Bruno Munari talks a lot about the importance of good design for children.

Let’s stay in children-related area. When Munari writes about design for children, he claims that projects for them should tell stories in a simple way. But is it possible to explain all phenomena in an easy way? Yes. You just need to use the right metaphor. Bruno brings up a very appealing example. Let’s focus on how to explain the concept of time to children. Bruno uses the heart and knocking to do that. He asks the child to put his hand to his heart and count the beats. One, two, three, four. After sixty beats, one minute passes. Then after sixty minutes, one hour passes. And so on. Easy? Easy. I consider this advice as the one useful for life in general. If something is hard to understand, use the other example — easier to digest.

Another way of simplifying is synthesis. In that manner we are reducing the amount of elements according to elements, which are the most important. Bruno Munari explains this phenomenon using the example of an arrow.

Evolution of the arrow. From one with a fuse and shaft to one where only the head of the arrow remains.
The evolution (synthesis) of the arrow

In this case we consider the arrow as a tool for orientation. This symbol comes from hunting times. Through the ages this symbol started to losing element by element. And because current meaning of this symbol is only for indication of direction is reduced just to an arrowhead. We used to it and it is totally understandable (at least in our culture).

If this text inspired you to reread (or read for the first time) “Design as art” let me know. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

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Josh Warner | Art & Design on Land-book

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