The Empire of Technical Aesthetics: Insight to Soviet UX

The 20th century became the most intense technological development period in the history of mankind. The first benefits of the marriage between science and mass production skyrocketed the industrial period of our world.

Much to its own demise in the two devastating World Wars and a Cold War which echoes are still striking upon our wirelessly-caressed ears, the development of technology is in charge for the current state of our world. History has shown the level of acceptance military products has in peaceful life. Apart from the pure utility, there is a place for design. Even though it’s role is often neglected, it pierces through the entire history of industrial, and then, digital production of everything. The socialist view of the world stands in stark difference to the capitalist one in many ways, but does it also in design? The discipline known as Technical Aesthetics became my country’s creativity retreat with its uniqueness and a dramatic history.

“To live in the Soviet Union was not to be ignorant of good design. It was to be obsessively, erotically hyperaware of it.”

— Michael Idov in Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design.

There is a bewildering contrast between imperial Russia’s style of associated visual appearance and Soviet constructivism, granted the two eras are not that far apart, one being an essential result of the flaws of the other. However, it’s the blend of classicalism and later blend of art deco and rationalism that created a character in Soviet design that is hard to grasp even for the ones born into it.

The prerequisites of UX design

The laws of physics are common for all, so is the human perception of comfort and satisfaction (more or less). This means our choices towards one option or another rely on something greater than traditions, culture, and environment. It starts with a fundamental conflict – you live or you die.

The Empire of Technical Aesthetics: Insight to Soviet UX | Shakuro

Primitive tools

Where did design begin? To a greater extent, it was a vital necessity pushing our early predecessors to find ways of improvement.

By polishing primitive weapons and tools we somehow tuned into a state of aesthetic satisfaction.

Good things feel natural and right maybe because of what is called the divine proportion or sacred geometry, or the Fibonacci sequence, but for some reason, we became aware of things that not only do the work but feel good while doing it. This was the time when the hidden user experience refined human brain to constantly search for perfection and while doing that, improve the very process of searching. This takes us to the field of engineering and ergonomics in particular.          

Ergonomics

Ergonomics is a cross-discipline school of thought utilizing all the potential knowledge to aid the interaction between products and the people who use them. The term ergonomics was introduced in 1857 by a Polish scholar Wojciech Jastrzębowski who was the first to ponder upon the application of natural laws to human labor and product usage. The cool thing about ergonomics is it does not stop at any point. Any discipline can contribute to it and in fact, ergonomics thrives in fundamental science.

No wonder, the age of industrialization had to discover the means to perfect the mass production of things. Before conveyors, there was interspersed manufacture which did not fit into the new rhythm dictated by the introduction of labor machinery. Ergonomics became an essential part of the industrial adaptation that introduced sanitary regulations, performance rates, and ultimately, the industrial sociology. Soviet Union, USA, and Japan quickly picked up the idea in 1920’s and since then never stopped their research. The Japanese school of thought took a slightly different path having introduced the term of human engineering and leaning more towards productivity through optimization. Ultimately, in 1949 International Ergonomics Association was founded to provide a global platform to exchange ideas and contribute to the industry on a greater scale.

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The 1950’s ergonomics be like…

Does it have anything to deal with the artistic side of production, the design? Absolutely so. In order to produce a competent worker, they had to apply heavy standards, almost in a military fashion.

The idea that the aesthetic aspect can aid the product’s qualities alongside pure ergonomics lead to the manifestation of institutional design.

With human mind being the primary resource for creation, there could be no escape from our natural desire to build things that feel right. Add to that planned type economy and the socialist regime, and you’ll get the environment where the phenomenon of Soviet UX was born and went unsung almost a century later.

The birth of UX in USSR

“1920’s is where all our future blessings and crimes stem from.”

— V. Shalamov

The socialist revolution of 1917 gave the people of former Russian Empire a different outlook on things that might have not necessarily been considered before at all. The new philosophical approach to economy and life in general, called cosmism became the leading paradigm of technological development. The concept of “The Common Goal” made philosophers and ideological leaders of that time realize that the goal can only be achieved in hard and self-sacrificing labor.

The entire scientific and production movement burst out of the understanding that human labor has to be organized and only science is the force capable of organizing it.

However, the contradictory nature of Russians did not circumvent them this time either. If science is capable of organizing everything, what organizes science itself? Religion being rejected and divine providence substituted with intellect and value-based frame of reference, what had the capabilities to be the absolute standard? The science-centric approach, endangered of becoming a loopback gave way to intuitionism, the projection of truth through personal perception.

What can’t be cognitively grasped at this point still has to be explained and expressed. This turned intuition into a learning method which turned avant-garde into the research tool. One of the ways to express it became modeling. This became the pivotal moment in the transition from the theoretical thinking to projection thinking – the messenger of sufficient design.

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Tatlin’s Tower, or the project for the Monument to the Third International (1919–20)

The industrial movement took it further with its new incarnation in constructivism.

The idea that design can be intrinsically ergonomic, developed the understanding that a wholesome thing with its utility being the primary quality, is also aesthetically beautiful by default and does not require any refinement.

The design prophet

Everybody at a time was obsessed with the idea of building a new life. The construction of that life, or we would say today, the UX culture, was based entirely on the denial of the pre-existing forms and constant attempts to find the new identity.

The one designer sticking to his guns was Vladimir Tatlin.

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Vladimir Tatlin

Since the early 1920’s, he was running the Department of Material Culture in St. Petersburg and worked mostly on objects of daily use like wood stove, beds, clothes, kitchenware, and etc. Later, he took command of the Art & Technology Institute and had a number of students working under his tutelage.

“Neither new, nor old, but proper.”

— V. Tatlin

It’s safe to say, Tatlin is the Godfather of soviet UX. His deep comprehension of human nature, tangible assets, and the feel for essential integration of simple aesthetics and function, put a lot of his work ahead of his time. No wonder Tatlin’s vision did not resonate with the majority of his contemporary community. The arising gigantomania trend could not click with Tatlin’s idea that essential little everyday things are also important.

The approach to user experience Tatlin created was based on a primitive, yet inventive, and witty human thought, formed in space and material.

The legacy built by Tatlin and his successors is still relevant almost a century later. The following are some of the examples of their work.

The Empire of Technical Aesthetics: Insight to Soviet UX | Shakuro

Practical kitchen-closet, stool, and an ergonomic teapot. The 1920’s

The Empire of Technical Aesthetics: Insight to Soviet UX | Shakuro

Tatlin’s clothing line. The 1920’s

The Soviet UX labs

The planned economy in the early Soviet Union was running on the five-year lists of goals. Basically, each “Five-Year” was a set of herculean tasks that required total dedication and self-denial from almost all the citizens of the country. Furthermore, the leaders “expected” each Five-Year plan to be completed in four or even three years. Failure to meet those “expectations” meant all sorts of troubles.

The dedicated labor became the obsession for the population that was deprived of faith, but given the ideology so rigorous, the religion has never seen. With all the specialists marching towards one goal, the design community did not lag behind. The knowledge of ergonomics (or ergonomy at the time) allowed industrial designers to contribute to the means of getting a Five-Year done in three.

The Trade Union Institute of Labor became the center of gravity for the research in social engineering, creative engineering, and biomechanics. Design became a tool to boost productivity. The Institute dedicated its time to researching the working mechanics to enhance the efficiency of teaching manual labor. The production process was treated as a relationship between the production tools and the worker. The better their interaction, the smoother the process. That’s your UX manifest from a hundred years ago right there.

Nikolai Bernstein, a prominent spokesperson for engineering design, believed in the application of biomechanics as an essential discipline for perfect productivity.

If you can design a technological tool, have its performance measured and calculated, how can you trust it if the second half, the human being, is accepted as is?

Bernstein said, if you can’t adapt your worker to the instrument and environment, let the instrument and environment adapt to the worker. This is where the concept of user interfaces becomes relevant for the first time. Place of work, the setup, and the experience become the objects of full-blown UX researches. Things like attention span, muscular force, trajectory, body position, angle of view, and etc., are taken into account from there on.

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The cyclogram of chisel work.

The military application of UX     

The next big shift of UX direction in the Soviet Union happened after the World War II. The scientific approach to labor engineering and product design found its further application in the military, aircraft in particular. The military specifics added another entity to the mix in form of psychophysiology. Turned out, the USSR was the only country that did not conduct any research of psychological ergonomics in military engineering.

The catching-up process was a hard one, but the obsessive dedication along with the talent of many scholars, allowed the country to rise and take one of the leading roles in aircraft production. The designers worked closely with psychologists on the principles of cockpit information display, the design of controls, instruments, and so on. From there on, the military engineering design took its own unique path at the intersection of psychology, biomechanics, and ergonomics.

The Empire of Technical Aesthetics: Insight to Soviet UX | Shakuro

Il-28 bomber cockpit in 1950’s.

The Renaissance of consumer UX

“It’s not what the artist does that counts; it’s what he is.”         

— P. Picasso

After the mayhem caused by the war was overcome, the focus began to turn back to design and its aesthetic aspect in particular. In the early 1960’s, design in the Soviet Union existed in segments and mainly due to the enthusiasm of separate people. There were no modern methodologies, schools of thought, and to learning and teaching design. The industry had been sending a bat signal for a hero to save it. And the hero appeared in the person of Yuri Soloviev.

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Yuri Soloviev, the first modern Russian designer

In the year 1962, Yuri Soloviev took charge of the Technical Aesthetics Research Institute or VNIITE (ВНИИТЭ) which was founded to fix the formal deficiency of design in the country but managed accomplish much more than that.

Under the conditions of total absence of economic, and a lot of other types of motivation, Soloviev and his supporters put Soviet design on the map and determined its development generations to come.

The state support of VNIITE, although being a double-edged sword, was exactly what the industry of design required at the time. The famous Soviet dedication to colossal projects did shine on our street too. The Institute received the top-notch equipment and technical facilities for experiments in design and ergonomics on a whole new level.

Note: As part of the Soviet nomenclature principles, foreign words were not welcome to identify even the borrowed implications. The same way, the Japanese martial art of Judo became Sambo in Russia, the word design was accurately substituted with technical aesthetics, in at least official cases.  

With 9 VNIITE affiliations opened throughout the country, the main focus of its research was yet again, better performance of products for the working class people national economy. That means durability, sustainability, and finally, aesthetics.

The Empire of Technical Aesthetics: Insight to Soviet UX | Shakuro

The VNIITE building

The scope of products VNIITE was involved with is impressive. There was no division on types of designers only focusing on specific fields. Instead, the diversity with which VNIITE approached everything designable became an outstanding feature of the Soviet design. This approach of desegmentation of design is perpetuated by a famous contemporary Russian design studio, Art. Lebedev that successfully practices wholesome design, working on the projects of city design, identity, product design, digital design, industrial design, and anything designable which is literally any thing.

Another important door VNIITE opened for designers like us today, is the ability to get higher education and science degrees in design.

Young and creative people for the first time since the 1920’s got the opportunity to start a career in design with a view to work in a prestigious facility on a wide variety of projects.

Among them was Dmitry Azrikan, a “project manager” of VNIITE in 1980’s. Perhaps, his most famous work is the digital domestic communication system/computer, called “Sphinx” became the pinnacle of Soviet design at the time. Of course, as part of an assignment to create a supercomputer, applicable for Soviet homes and institutions. All the bulky boxes mounted in mid-size apartments were meant to be replaced by a highly-flexible automation system, also capable of providing information services and even medical diagnostics.

The emerging digital future, although having no technological abilities to be materialized, gave Azrikan a vision of the interaction between a human being and information. This was the first manifestation of the modern UX concept in USSR.

The Empire of Technical Aesthetics: Insight to Soviet UX | Shakuro

The Sphinx computer setup with separate memory blocks

Like any other scientific institution, VNIITE published a stack of what we’d call today product manuals, but their version was more like a UX passport/product presentation.

The Empire of Technical Aesthetics: Insight to Soviet UX | Shakuro

Project documentation for consumer goods and industrial equipment

There were a lot of jokes among the people in USSR about the design of consumer goods. But from the today’s perspective, we can say that the design wasn’t bad at all. It was different, no doubt and given all the limitations and requirements set at the time, some of the products created by Soviet designers became iconic.

The aesthetic part of design suffered from excessive functionality and simply bored people. Truth is, the durability almost all the products had did not aid user experience by constant search for enhancement. Why would you fix it if it works for years?

 


Originally published at UX Planet