Mies or No Mies? Was He Design Greatness? That is the Question!

A Blog by Linda Darlene

“Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” ~ William Shakespeare


Not too long ago, I had a brief discussion with my brother-in-law on Facebook, which subsequently prompted me to contemplate the question of what makes a designer ‘great.’

I mean, are there pre-defined standards that determine a designer’s greatness — or is greatness determined by a specific target audience that finds a designer’s body of work especially appealing? Maybe both? Read on! I’ll tell you where my mental wanderings led me. 🙂

Recently, I posted to my Facebook page, asking what makes for a ‘good designer?’ Then I proceeded to list designers from a variety of fields.

• Steve Jobs – Digital Designer
• Frank Lloyd Wright – Organic Architectural Designer
• Kelly Wearstler – Interior Design
• Coco Chanel – Fashion Designer
• Mies Van der Rohe – Modern Architectural Designer
• Paul Rand – Graphic Designer
• Edith Head – Costume Design
• Florence Knoll Bassett – Furniture Design

I had garnered my list of names from researching reputable names. Those who were distinguished on several ‘good designer’ lists were the names that made my cut. Not having studied the body of work for each designer, nor having considered whether I liked a designers’ styles or not, I included names only because others considered them deserving of that accolade. And for some odd reason, I did not include web designers. Duh! (I’ll leave that for another blog, perhaps.)

After I posted the list on Facebook, I received a dissenting comment — ironically from my own brother-in-law. 🙂

He disputed my inclusion of Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, the well known German and American architect.

His comment was, “… I’ll dissent on Mies van der Rohe’s claim to greatness. I attended IIT [Illinois Institute of Technology] in Chicago, which boasts some MVDR buildings. I liked them at first, but over time they tired me with their boxy, hard, noisy, institutional bleakness.”

And you know what? I agreed with my brother-in-law. Then!

Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe (also known simply as Mies) is one of the pioneers of modern architecture. He is famous for the adage, “Less is more,” meaning that just having the essentials in design is better than having a lot of unnecessary excesses. In today’s vernacular, we’d say, “Keep it simple, stupid.” 🙂

Those who know me know that I have a passion for Spanish Mudéjar architecture, which consists of mosaics, tiling, and Islamic calligraphy. The style is considered minimalist in its geometric beauty. Mies’ style is minimalist in its use of industrial steel and plate glass. These two styles, both considered significant contributions to western culture, could not be more different.

Lake Shore Drive Apartments

Mies’ Modern Architecture

Mudejar Architecture

Mudéjar Architecture

In strong design work, you would expect the competent integration of ideas, concepts, or works so that they appeal to an intended  ‘target demographic.’  Using this definition for  ‘greatness’ in design, there is no mention of aesthetics and our different conceptions of what beauty is.

I’ve come to the conclusion, after much pondering, that it is simply not fair to define ‘good design’ by whether the design is globally appreciated. How can we? Beauty does not exist on its own; it’s defined and experienced by its observers. The concept of beauty varies from culture to culture, and even from generation to generation.

I once could not understand the fascination with the art of Pablo Picasso, for example. Those sharp geometric designs, irregularly placed just didn’t do it for me. Then, one day, I had reason to study Picasso’s famous work ‘Guernica.’ Light bulb! I suddenly understood his genius. Whereas I won’t be hanging a Picasso in my home anytime soon, I ‘get it’ now; I get why his Cubist works are considered ‘great.’

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Another famous quote by Mies Van der Rohe is: “God is in the details,” meaning that attention paid to small things pays off.

When a web designer conceives a site, the task is to figure out how to properly place the body of information in such a way that it is easy to navigate for the user. Done well, that’s sound design. For example, I once landed on a site and went exploring, but I couldn’t figure out how to get back to the HOME page. (After fiddling around, I clicked on its title.) I’m persistent and don’t like technological challenges, but let’s face it, how many users will be equally as persistent as I? Gosh! What’s wrong with having a proper old-fashioned home tab?

Alcazar Seville, Spain

Alcazar Sevilla, España – Mudéjar

Details! The beauty is in the details. Sound navigation must exist. Typography must be readable, dark enough, large enough, and aesthetically match the site’s design. Images should be well-placed and consistent with the content. The use of white space to highlight the content is important. Contrast is also an essential design ingredient. Proportion is crucial. And if ‘less is more’ as Mies says, then let’s take away the excessive and unnecessary animation and media that some designers use these days that distract from the content.


Design is in the details.

Good design doesn’t just happen; it takes problem-solving; along with a lot of right brain creativity. When done well, we do not notice good design, so naturally and smoothly do all the components flow. So, when a designer gets all these things right — will every one be attracted to that work? Hmmm. 

Though aesthetics, the elements of beauty that appeal to the senses, are undoubtedly essential to capture attention, we can agree, I’m sure, that not everyone has the same tastes or sense of beauty. Good design in web design, therefore, must be defined by other things, such as readability, flow, navigation, and engaging, well-presented content.  How all these characteristics come together is what separates an average designer from a great designer.

In architecture, good design is functional, accessible, well-made, sustainable, with the wise use of space and materials —and other such qualities. Likewise, in architecture, great designers stand out from average designers by how all these components come together in unique ways.

Crown Hall on IIT Campus

Crown Hall on IIT Campus – Mies Van der Rohe

So if we can agree that ‘good’ design is about getting the details right for a specific style, then we need not lament that greatness in design is necessarily going to vary according to what engages, captivates, and appeals to an express target audience. And that’s just the way it is, folks.

Mies or No Mies? Was he design greatness? — That’s no longer the question, is it? 🙂

Further Study
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