Archetype in digital design is an access point to discovery of what works and why for UX designers today.
Archetype refers to varying postures of perspective—lenses through which we all view our world. If I show you a picture of a castle, you won’t have any difficulty identifying several key components, even though you might never have seen any actual castles. For instance, a high wall typically surrounds castle enclosures. Other components, like possibly a moat or a drawbridge, similarly have clear and obvious defensive functions.
Every child knows what a castle is ‘supposed’ to look like, just as every child knows what a house ‘should’ look like:
The recognizability of these forms is what makes them archetypal, just as a preschooler’s crayon drawing of a rectangle with a triangular peak on top, a couple of squares representing windows, a rectangle and a circle representing a door and doorknob relay the concept of ‘house’ to us (even if we grew up or live in a building with a flat roof).
It is the very recognizability of archetypal components that make them archetypal. Traditional architecture (i.e., building architecture), went through its own struggle with archetypes throughout the twentieth century. Modernist architects, especially of the International movement, decried historical reference; form became elevated above function. Under the influence of many “high modern” architects, especially in public and large-scale buildings, basic function typologies became ambiguous. Is this an entrance or an exit? Is this a window or a reflective panel? Is this a public space or a corporate space? Such architecture today is seen as cold, minimal, ‘brutal’, or even ’Stalinist’ and is frequently the topic of criticism from noted urban theorists such as Jane Jacobs and postmodernist architects like Michael Graves.
The rejection of archetypal forms in Modern Architecture eventually came to be seen as the rejection of a form of the excessive hubris produced by Internationalist architects such as I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Le Corbusier. The idea that the public should or could embrace completely new forms that reject all historical references in shape, form or meaning with excitement and utilization proved a complete and utter failure.
Many of Le Corbusier’s International Style model homes or ‘machines for living’, as he referred to them, were ‘dressed up’ by residents over the years with the addition of shutters, peaked roofs, and window boxes to conform to the psychological and social needs of their communities. Elsewhere, in Chicago, London, St. Louis, and Toronto, massive modernist building projects erected only 10 to 25 years earlier were blown up. The minimal forms and sweeping, barren courtyards of these projects proved to be the enemy of creating real communities. Instead, these model communities proved to be everything but by becoming cesspools of crime, family breakdown, and economic disadvantages.
Can the recent lessons of architectural history inform design? Can they possibly inform UX design and IT design in general?
The building form of today is digital design, specifically User eXperience: UX. UX is the short form for the field of design that pertains to the real-life interface between humans and machines. When you touch the screen of your smartphone, you are having a UX experience that UX-designers developed.
Archetype was proved to be an essential ingredient by a generation of architects after the International Style ‘high-modern’ architects of the mid-twentieth century. We need to know (and understand) where the front door is, and we expect certain cues and signals to point this out to us. We need our architecture to perform several layers of function; protection from the elements is just one. Other functions include social connection, community inclusion through contextual elements, psychological security, and beauty.
Omission of just one or two of these elements produces short-lasting architecture that literally will be blown up by succeeding generations to make room for better things. Fundamentally, if architecture doesn’t make the users of the building happy, of what use can it be? The current crop of Digital Design sadly demonstrates that little has been learned from architectural antecedent.
Elements of architecture (archetype) in UX design:
There may be several layers of archetype to consider in UX design.
First, let us consider the architecture of intention. As a User, I have at least a few ‘archetypal’ mindsets. For instance, I may (consciously or otherwise) frame my expectations as either a ’super-user’ or (by way of contrast) as a ’newbie’. The archetype of the ’super-user’ might be that of an Empress in a Palace. This haughty user knows what she wants and expects it now! The archetype of the ’newbie’ may be that of a Student in a School. This learner doesn’t yet know what he wants exactly, and he expects help to find that out and get there. These are two dramatically different archetypes, and we have not even begun looking at the design!
Fundamentally, knowledge of archetypal informs both design processes and outcomes. If a UX designer has pinpointed two primary avatars in the Empress (Queen) and the Student, then it may be time to look for cues and similarities in their respective domiciles: Palaces and Schools. For instance, both forms of architecture (on an archetypal level) are influenced by classical architecture. Central elements include a decorated public-facing facade, a wide and high central entrance, large rooms with high ceilings, and a ceremonial approach, which often includes forms that visually create a sense of entrance and arrival, through centralized and symmetrically planned gates, staircases, and even ceremonial lions or other statuary.
Apple’s UX design
Apple’s UX design may be discussed on several levels, for instance, by beginning to examine what Apple’s overall archetype is and then comparing archetypal influences in its designs. Another way of looking at the UX is simply to view it through a lens of ’neutral’ archetype. Whatever the brand archetype, does the UX actually produce an internally consistent experience? Is it archetype approved?
On several levels, it is clear that Apple, along with Google, Microsoft, and, to a lesser extent, several other large and bit players just aren’t playing. There is such a loose sense of consistency that there is a nearly continuous experience of newness and unfamiliarity. While newness and unfamiliarity may not be bad things, within a discussion of overall UX design, they are the very enemy! Recently, I counted no less than five different areas of the screen where, at different stages of the software interface, my iPad, through Apple’s iTunes player, wanted me to tap a finger to play the same piece of music. It ought to be clear enough that this is antithetical to good UX design experience based on several criteria (ease of use, ergonomics, ability to recall, generating physical memory). The one criteria of archetype actually serves to point this out most thoroughly.
On my iPad, the Music icon is on the bottom right of the screen, but this can be anywhere. Note that the Music icon has no resemblance to the Play button (required later):
In this case (above), play buttons materialize across the screen, about ¼ the way down:
Here, play buttons appear on right side of the screen about halfway up and near the bottom left. Which is correct? As it turns out, they do different things.
Here the play button has gone back to the bottom left area, where it frequently, but not always, gravitates on iPad.
While we are looking here at the native iPad music player (alone), when we look at all the different ‘apps’ that may play sound on an iPad, we get even more variety (and uncertainty). This is due to a lack of conforming architectural guidelines in the base operating system/environment, for UX designers. It’s not that this is a bad plan, it’s that there is no plan!
Because archetype refers to typical examples based on original concepts, symbols, and motifs in literature, art, and design, and typically to ideas, concepts, and visuals that have a well-known, well-understood and well-recognized background throughout history, a sure demonstration of not following archetype in design is ‘placement anxiety’, the sense that when operating software, you don’t know what will be coming next. The indecisive psychological state this places users in is anathema to both good design and good UX in general. A clear solution is the identification of archetype (choose one!) and then identification of how the archetype influences design from the ground up.
Using one of the archetypes already mentioned, that of the Palace, which, as it turns out, is the brand archetype of Apple, what can we learn about the sort of design and UX experience that Apple should be producing?
Palace brands, large and small (above).
The Palace metaphor presents a timeless backdrop to brands, brand experiences, and user experiences. The fundamental domain of the Palace archetype is Time. Query the Palace (brand, UX, or design) and the default question is always the categorical ‘When’? The only answer the Palace will give in response to this question is ‘Forever’, or ‘Always’. In other words, the Palace archetype, exhibited by brands such as Apple, Coca-Cola and CHANEL (yes, the Coco Chanel’s CHANEL) is the archetype of the eternal mother. Since the unspoken promise returned by this archetype is both strong and unequivocal, it gives a pretty good sense of what should be coming. And, for the most part, at least in packaging/box design, Apple succeeds brilliantly. Apple hardware products are very timeless in appearance; do not really subscribe to fads, thus retaining an elegant, understated quality. Unfortunately, in terms of the UX experience, especially in newer products like Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, timeless is not what is experienced. Minimal? Yes. Forever? No. As a matter of fact, the experience of the entire user interface is one of continuous adaptive discovery. This represents a design archetype (of the Adventurer) that might be a great place to start for a game designer, but it does not make sense for Apple. Apple’s UX experience should be solid, constant, clear, and consistent. Underlying architectural elements of the Palace ought to prevent any other type of design from emerging.
So far, we have looked at two aspects of archetype and how archetype can inform or influence UX design: from the User perspective, and from the Brand’s point-of-view.
Third influence of Archetype on UX design critical:
Idealized buttons for an interface based on both modern and classical archetypes (above).
The third and possibly the most important influence of Archetype on UX design is within the ‘decision tree’ or ‘flow’ of UX design. We will be taking a deeper dive into the archetypal factors that influence intelligent UX design in a later article.
Meanwhile I am interested in knowing your reaction to the concepts and ideas presented in this short introduction to the use of Archetype in UX design. Please comment or share.
LinkedIn Profile Over 25 years deep and wide experience with leading global brands like Chanel, Evian and Virgin Records has given Bryce a wide picture of the world of branding.
He is an expert in new brand architecture, non-advertising models of digital economy, archetypal models of taxonomy, consensus-building economies, and color in ergonomics.
Bryce is a visionary marketer committed to social justice and free-market economy.