Mondrian & User Interfaces

User Interfaces have many shapes and generations. Sometimes you have periods with a clear trend. For example, in 2020 we’ve seen many interface designs in the style “skeuomorphism”.

UI design in Skeuomorphism design style
Skeuomorphism design by Jatin Lathiya

But something that user interfaces will always consist of is the plane division. This can range from wireframes and abstract surface divisions to graphic tile interfaces such as we know from Microsoft’s Metro style.

In this article we dive into the past of abstract art. And I try to establish a relationship between the abstract art of Piet Mondrian and user interface design.

Piet Mondrian’s style development.

Pieter Mondriaan was a Dutch painter who is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

At the beginning of 1900, Piet’s style began to develop. You started to see this reflected in his works. The abstract large surface divisions in particular were a striking appearance. This made the negative space almost more important than the strips that were to form the shape of the subject.

Tableau I, 1921, by Piet Mondrian. Museum of art in The Hague.

“Neo-plasticism”, also called new image, emerged from an article written by Mondrian “The new image in painting”. It assumed that everything came from the idea and that the performance was of secondary importance.

In painting this meant that you always painted what arose from yourself (subject, idea, the spiritual). This was also referred to by Mondrian as “internalization”.

“Not a single painting is created by chance. Each painting is a combination of space, surface, line and color. ” — Piet Mondrian

Interfaces in UI design

The style and vision of Piet Mondrian seems to correspond with the surface divisions that are designed in the initial phase of an interface design. Also called wireframes.

Wireframes are abstract interpretations of an interface design that is in the early stages. In addition, it is important, just like Mondrian told, to divide surfaces with a certain amount of space that they get within the total space of the interface.

A user interface has an extra dimension: the user. The user uses an interface to achieve his goal and complete the tasks within the interface.

The interface can be divided into areas and lines in such a way that it can attract the user’s attention.

What does De Stijl mean for UI Designers?

A well-known UI design style that we all know is Material (also called Flat) design. Within these guidelines you can see that Mondrian’s work has not gone unnoticed.

Microsoft’s “tiles” in the Metro design style is also an interface choice that resembles the works of Mondrian. And if we are to believe the beliefs in De Stijl painting, these can also be partly transferred to the digital “canvas”.

You can think of an interface as a multi-layered and context-adaptable work by Mondrian. Where tiles shift to grab the user’s attention and focus on a particular part of the interface.

With the exception of a few works by Mondrian, most are bound on a square or rectangular canvas. As long as these rectangular shapes continue to use themselves for the interfaces, we can continue to apply the lessons of Piet Mondrian in these user interfaces.

Microsoft’s Fluent design style
Microsoft’s Metro design style

A little Mondrian in every UI.

I’m curious what you think about this as a co-designer? Take a look at yourself and challenge yourself to apply the lessons that Mondrian has taught us all in an interface design.

I am also curious whether you see common ground between Mondrian, or other historical artists/designers, and the user interface?

Thank you for reading this article and feel free to add additional or feedback on this story.