After living, studying and working for 4 years in Germany, I am still fascinated by the differences in design process between German and US Americans. The following is a brief overview of 4 topics that seem to be opposite approaches to solving the same design problems.
1. Chaos from Order, or Ordering Chaos
Design has lots to do with structuring information for the intended user. There are just as many design processes as there are designers but some trends can be found in every group. Every design includes a hierarchy of information. Designers choose how this ordered information should be presented to the end users.
- German design usually takes all the pieces apart analyzes, categorizes and rebuilds the structure logically from end to end. The benefits of this approach are that nothing is left out and the information (or design) makes sense. Criticism of this method is that sometimes things don’t need to make sense and nonsense could be a useful design tool. Nonsense must be planned in this approach which usually produces unsuccessfully predictable results.
- American designers generate a full structure first and chaotically fill in the details. The feeling of the work is more important than the facts at the beginning of the design process. What seems like a finished product (at the beginning) typically requires much further development in order to produce a usable design. The benefit of this approach is that much time can be saved at the beginning, allowing for testing and feedback early in the design process. The drawback is that designs often end up incomplete or may ignore valuable details.
2. About words, do Germans read more?
It is never good to generalize a culture, but design trends usually reflect and influence the audience they engage. American designs often have to fight against competing designs and often rely on strong graphics and images. Many German designs rely on quality of content over demanding the attention of users and can rely on the fact that the users will read more and engage longer with the information provided.
- German design focuses on detailed body text.
- American design focuses on headlines.
3. Two layers or three
Perception on a two dimensional design is about giving the illusion that something is close or far. To what extent the user will believe in the illusion or value the illusion must be carefully crafted, otherwise the results may be unsuccessful. American design tends to have 3 layers and German design focuses on 2.
- German visual design focuses on form on field. The message itself is the focus and the background is used to frame the main field. Hierarchy is built linearly on one plain.
- American visual design includes foreground, middleground and background. Attention is drawn in through the foreground to the message in the middle. The background serves as a content frame and often delivers mood. The design hierarchy is organized from visual loudness to quietness.
4. Does everything line up on a grid?
Both design approaches appreciate grids and understanding boundaries, but the dependence on the grid is approached from both cultures in an almost opposite way.
- German design finds strength in alignment. Items that fall precisely in a row do not steal attention visually. Attention is taken through more conservative ways such as reading from top to bottom. The default for visual elements in this approach is to err on the side of order even when at risk of being too light.
- American design recognizes alignment to the grid but places more value on breaking the alignment to draw attention. Aligning design elements is often used to make the elements that don’t line up much louder. This approach tends to err on the side of being more visually extreme even if it could weaken the entire design.
What these two cultures learn from each other
Both approaches are intensely focused on the intended end user and works well in their content. Perhaps stealing some things could add extra strength to design culture itself. German design could use the holistic methods from American design to balance the pieces. Working from the whole first can prevent one weak element from breaking the entire design. American design could use more precision in the chaotic build. More control in the details could strengthen the bold and “instinctual” designs.
Understanding the methods of other cultures can be fascinating and can only lead to better understanding your own design culture. My list is only a few thing I have noticed over the time I spent as an American in Germany and does not begin to illustrate the fascinating perspectives these two cultures have.