Experiences Are Framed Abstractions: The Importance of Indeterminate Design

by Marc Hohmann, Sterling Brands

Since the mid 1990s, I’ve noticed a shift in my brand consulting work. Clients have gone from wanting to be as literal as possible to wanting to be as abstract as possible. One assumption today is that abstraction hides flaws and that its interpretation offers freedom. So, if a client chooses something abstract, then it is safer than something direct because the latter makes an unmistakable statement whose meaning can’t be steered by interpretation. Something figurative and literal either exists or doesn’t, while something abstract can be much to many.

Even after a specific strategy is constructed, the essence and visual execution are always in danger of being camouflaged by abstract vagueness in the attempt to diffuse an absolute commitment. The dilemma is that everybody wants to be more “human,” but at the same time more high-tech and cutting-edge. How can a more “human” design simultaneously be a more abstract design? Today’s contradictory forces render our notions of formalism and abstraction outdated. Does minimalism really communicate efficiency and is something figurative really more “human”? What would manifest a truly “human” design solution?

When Kazimir Malevich painted “Black Square on White Field” in 1915 he initiated the shift from recognizable, figurative subject matter to interpretive, open abstraction. It’s hard to believe that Monet’s “Water Lilies” were actually painted the same year as “Black Square.”

One is poetic, specific and empathetic; the other is mathematical, universal and formal.

“Black Square” created the foundation of our modernist principles and shaped a philosophy that prevailed in art, architecture and design until the mid 1960’s. In the shadow of mechanization, industrial and efficient language became part of the artist’s vocabulary: reduction, structure, contrast, strength and impact. It was a clean, minimal, streamlined character of modern aesthetics that shaped architecture, print design, sculpture, product design, and countless other industries. From abstraction came the pure form of Expressionism (a movement that exemplified a move back to more emotional figurative underpinnings) and, mixed with the Surrealist principles of spontaneous creation, Abstract Expressionism, which gave birth to a language that championed the reality of process as the center of painting (created by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, etc).

1_John Cage ³Fontana Mix² Notation, 1981[1]

John Cage “Fontana Mix” Notation, 1981

Modernist formalism and Abstract Expressionism started to break in the 1950’s with the emergence of Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and later, Andy Warhol who amidst their very different philosophies and styles, shared the same interest, to express the “real” vs. the abstract by using completely different and new ways to go about it. (Rauschenberg and Warhol needed tangible, figurative iconography to sculpt with commercial artifacts that questioned the 50’s middle class’ newly acquired status quo. Cage understood that a clear definition of the “real” was needed to define the boundaries of his indeterminate approach to  creating everything.) The aim was to make the art experience more “human” by defining indeterminacy as a reality and not an abstraction.

“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” – John Cage

Simultaneously, the re-emergence of figurative realism in art and design (by the likes of Raymond Lowry, Charles Eames, etc.) in the 1950’s and 1960’s introduced a design area of new minimal industrial aesthetics that started in the mid-1970’s and continues to this day. From Dieter Rams via John McCracken to Jonathan Ive, minimal geometric abstraction is generally embraced as a fitting reflector of high technology, and represents efficiency that is on par with our streamlined, exceedingly baggage-less world. If a company or brand wants to appear dynamic, agile, and flexible—it had better look minimal, simple and slick. However, empirical, cold corporations are not something we really want either, so we also need things to be warm, “human” and friendly.


Is it possible to be both “human” and machine-centric at the same time? It seems we want the discipline of sans serif with the randomness of script, the fully integrated home with the coziness of a barn, the purity of water with as many vitamins as possible. Apple is considered to be both minimal and “human” but I would argue it isn’t. In thinking like John Cage, only if there would be indeterminate options in the way we navigate within the confines of a brand, a truly non-fascistic brand experience could be created. In Apple’s case, our experiences are completely pre-determined and limited. Ultimately, this is a design flaw that in my mind weighs the position towards the machine. Over-controlled design is the real problem here.

As meticulous engineering and design drive high performance and efficiency, the overall experience remains a flawless, modulated construct that keeps reducing human imperfection and most importantly, chance to a minimum.

I argue that to be more “human,” there needs to be focused design on the surface and inside that maintains an organic open ended-ness, a core of a more flexible essence. From that perspective, Apple appears not minimal and simple, but design heavy, controlling and overly abstract. Three things are in play here: the logo, the product design, and the inside. The logo is a figurative, natural, organic, everyday object; the product design is a minimal, controlled framework; the inside is a strictly linear evolving structure. Design pillars that are built on fulfilling our expectations rather than inspiring our vision through indeterminacy and open-endedness.

Operaen sett fra luften. Foto: birdseyepix.com/Christopher Hagelund.

Snøhetta, Oslo Opera House, 2015 photo by birdseyepix.com/Christopher Hagelund.

This has me thinking about the architectural concept of super fluidity. The idea of equal access to all entry and exit points and functional spaces simultaneously, a non-hierarchical construct where there is no chronology, no story and no path. For example, Snøhetta’s Oslo Opera House: a clearly defined multiple platform that enables non-prescriptive access to floors that are equal to the desire of human freedom. So, in my mind the answer is not a balance between a slick, efficient machine and human-friendly warmth, but an organic design that intentionally lacks definition. The vitality of chaos sparked by a lack of definition yet contained by order and decisive form. A solid construct that at its core is abstract without a beginning or end. Flexible hardware and flexible software contained by concrete ideas and aims (such as: brand experience, social connectivity, future responsibilities, etc.)

3_Whitney Museum Logo, Experimental Jetset, 2015[2]

Whitney Museum Logo, Experimental Jetset, 2015

There several other examples that demonstrate these design relationships in different ways: The current identity for the Whitney museum would be an example of a logo identity that is both structured and open ended simultaneously. Here no application is ever strictly alike, the logo becomes a device to frame content while in itself staying flexible.

4_Minae Kim ³14 Degrees Off², 2013 photo by Changwoo Ryu, courtesy of HADA Contemporary[1]

Minae Kim “14 Degrees Off”, 2013 photo by Changwoo Ryu, courtesy of HADA Contemporary

The installations of Minae Kim and Pia Camil both use construction and control by balancing chance. They aim to frame the unpredictability of human interaction to create an aura of controlled mutability. In Kim’s piece ‘14 degrees Off,’ white walls are fenced by heavy rails, and a pink ball is randomly placed in the space. The viewer perceives structure but also the freedom of randomness through definition (hard frame & silver fence = control; soft sphere & pink ball = letting go).

5_Pia Camill ³Wearing-Watching², 2015 photos by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy Frieze Art Inc.[1]

Pia Camill “Wearing-Watching”, 2015 photos by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy Frieze Art Inc.

Mexico City’s Pia Camil’s “Wearing-Watching’ piece for the 2015 Frieze New York Art Fair successfully turned the frame of curating inside out by giving away 800 colorful ponchos that took the installation to the streets and into neighboring exhibitions. Abstracting the existing context of art value, ownability, fashion and identity and leaving the ‘installation’ completely unstructured while the piece unfolded as a social gathering that sent a branded tribe into the streets.

So, back to where we started. The discussion is really not about figurative versus abstract, but about defined outlines containing undefined space. This means accepting the abstract and then framing it. There is no endlessly interpretable void but a containable undefined core. Abstraction becomes a propeller for freedom that enables experiences because experiences are by nature, “framed abstractions.”

Marc Hohmann is managing director of design at Sterling Brands, based in New York City. He brings over 20 years of experience working with leading global brands on packaging, identity and product design. Recent work by Marc includes global rebranding programs for Allergan, Pepsi, Samsung and Stanley Black + Decker. Prior to joining Sterling, Marc was creative director and partner at Lippincott. Since 1997, he has also been the owner and creative director of Kon/struktur, a design consultancy, with clients like Evian, the City of London, Telefonica and Zero Maria Cornejo. His work has been featured in Elle, Fast Company, HOW, Vogue and WIRED. Marc received a BFA with honors from the Art Center College of Design.

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