Neomodernism in product design

There is a fascinating correlation between the underlying principles of the lean startup movement and the underlying principles of modernism, regarding both process and theory.

Living in the heart of Shoreditch I have come across many startups and agencies using lean and agile methodologies, and worked for a few. The uncontested bible that these fast-paced companies live by is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Nick Marsh, co-founder of Makeshift, arguably the leader of the London startup pack, describes the moment when everything clicked after The Lean Startup was published in 2011: “While there was nothing unique about it, it was such a  powerful book because it pulled everything I’d already been doing together into this single understanding of how to make new things.” 


The lean startup manifesto aims to eliminate waste in the business life-cycle by learning how to solve the customers problem with an experimental “Build, Measure, Learn” feedback loop using a minimum viable product. So instead of spending a year creating a finished product with all the bells and whistles, then rolling it out to customers and discovering they won’t use it, this tactic encourages the introduction of a simplified product to the marketplace in order to test the company’s assumptions with customers and learn how they would use it, if at all.

Lean process looks at design and development as a series of experiments. Interestingly, this is exactly the approach that the original Modernist designers took with regard to their work early in the 20th century, beginning in the Bauhaus and extending the many decades until Post-Modernism reared it’s ugly head. 

Bruno Munari was an artist, industrial designer and futurist whose original ideas on modernism and the creative process were seminal works in the mid-20th century. The following description of Munari’s process could easily correlate with the path of an ambitious startup business:

“Munari’s creative process intentionally merged a multiplicity of ideas, techniques and materials. All of his works involve an approach that is never sequential, and hence difficult to describe through linear explanations or reductive definitions, but is rooted in a parallel perspective that manifests itself through the reworking of an idea a kaleidoscope of forms.”  –Dr. Margherita Zanoletti


I’m reminded of the work of prolific Cranbrook-trained artist Keetra Dean Dixon, whose work spawns from a process of brazen experimentation. “Urging unexpected response via improper material application is simple curiosity in action; it’s learning, and we love to learn. We begin many studies by posing a simple question: “What happens if…?” and gain knowledge from the results.”

“Slitscan Type”, 2006, using Javascript, Illustrator and every font installed on the computer

Similarly, experimentation is at the heart of the lean startup methodology. Each assumption within the startup’s vision is an experiment that must be tested in order to learn more about your customers and build a sustainable business. The experiment is your first product.


We are currently in a phase of neo-modernism, in which designers have returned their focus to the purity of form guided by the principle “form follows function”. iOS7 is probably the strongest example of neo-modernism in digital design. Embellishment is altogether eliminated and forms are stripped back to their basic necessities – a style that is now dubbed “flat design”. This new design direction is a reaction to the skeuomorphism of the past, which was trying to make the digital space look and feel like the physical world around us.

Modernism in design allows materials to be what they are, bringing content and function as close as possible to the user. In digital design, we are beginning to explore the possibilities of natural user interfaces based on human gestures. This correlates and complements the work that industrial designers have developed for decades.

Bruno Munari studied the form of bamboo and its various uses and meanings to the Japanese. “They always pay attention to the nature and structure of the ‘tube with knots in it’, and discover in it a great variety of proportions.” When creating tubing or vases from this material, they maximize the capabilities of the natural form.

 Image gratitude to  MOMA
Image gratitude to  MOMA

In 1964, Munari designed the Falkland hanging lamp, which is now in the permanent collection at the MOMA in New York, using two materials: aluminum for the rings and elasticized fabric for the shell. The lamp is five feet high when hanging but placed on a flat surface it collapses to about one inch. There are no struts or rings or other stylistic embellishments; to achieve the form one simply needs to hang the lamp up. In this case the product emerged spontaneously from Munari’s fascination with the minimalism of Japanese craftsmanship and his experiments with materials and tensions.


In the same way that Munari took the core element of bamboo to create a functioning lamp, or takes a basic square of wood to make a complex modular shelving unit, product designers need to find the core idea that will create the most value for customers.

Finding the core element that makes up the whole is essential to create a minimum viable product. Once it is tested, any further complexity can be built around this core feature.

I recently worked with a fashion B2B startup to create an MVP for their Techstars Demo Day, and early on in the process I interviewed a group of potential customers to understand their needs and working process. It was revealed through a number of conversations that they wanted a platform that would “put it all together”, so trends, news and product search and discovery in one place. This led to a simplified design which related trends straight from the runway and fashion blogs leading directly to a product search on the site. Hopefully this core feature will test positively with users and lead to a successful product down the road – will be really interesting learning over the next few months.

Applying modernist principles during the product design process will provide theory and framework for preventing the all too common problem of feature creep, as well as eliminating waste and unnecessary complexity. The benefit of creating a simplified product based on a core idea is well worth the challenge to focus, prioritize, and reduce up front.

Published by Elizabeth Pizzuti

Design, art, and cats mostly

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