Digital design for the ‘in-between’
The future of Aldo van Eyck’s revolutionary thinking?
Emma Jeane Wrigley
Aldo van Eyck’s climbing dome and floating modal (image by author).⁶
Having recently moved to Amsterdam, one of the aspects of the city that has stood out the most for me is not the canals, red light district or even the masses of weed dispensaries but the playgrounds.
Nestled between parks, highways, or larger buildings you’re almost always likely to find the looping metal of a play dome or concrete sandpit.
The more I walked through the city, the more I noticed the proliferation of these industrial-style playgrounds. Always packed with small children, the swooping bars and odd shapes of these play areas simultaneously unify with the surrounding architecture and contrast its seriousness.
After a quick google search, I learned about Aldo van Eyck and his massive impact on the architecture and urban design of post-war Amsterdam.³
After the second world war, van Eyck designed more than 700 playgrounds under commission for the city of Amsterdam; in an attempt to reconstruct the city and foster a new sense of community and social cohesion. The 17 playgrounds left today are a reminder of the social impact one man can have on a city.
The ‘playground project’ put into practice van Eyck’s theory of design for the ‘in-between’.
He viewed these vacant lots within the city as “the common ground where conflicting polarities can again become twin phenomena.” ⁴
In other words, van Eyck saw the opportunity to convert overlooked spaces into meeting places for communities through the medium of child’s play. In-between spaces where you would usually wait around or walk through on your commute, became places where people could meet, form new relationships and play.
These small scale interventions or “acupuncture for the liveability of the city” ⁴ helped to restructure and unite a post war city.
“ There is only one reality between real persons — what Buber call ‘the real third’. […]
The real third is a real dialog, a real embrace, a real duel between real people.
Buber then goes on to state — and this is his crucial point — that the real third is not something that happens to one person or another person separately and a neutral world containing all things, but something that happens in a dimension only accessible to both. The in-between acquiring form.” ¹
Van Eyck saw the design of each playground structure as an opportunity to test out his ideas on spatial design, relativity and imagination.
All of the designs were minimalist in order to stimulate the minds of children and facilitate free play. The affordances of each play piece suggested just enough that children could use them but also create and build upon the structures. Van Eyck’s playgrounds aimed to give space for the imagination on the blank concrete of the ‘in-between’.
The blank white space or the ‘in-between’ spaces of the digital world can be found nestled between sign up buttons, loading pages and input forms.
The vastness of dead space surrounding a loading sign (that is taking far too long) is a UX designer’s nightmare. A forced pause that causes the attention to drift for even a few seconds leads to less engagement with the product. The user is faced with their own virtual vacant lot to walk over in order to complete a task.
A company that has recently redesigned the way we see this digital ‘in-between’ is Wetransfer. By having a simple product that relies on one small modal for the user to upload their files, along with a hefty loading time for large files to upload and send. The company was left with a lot of empty blank page ‘real estate’ and the precious attention of a waiting user.
Wetransfer screenshot ⁷
Wetransfer screenshot ⁷
As a regular user of the platform, I slowly noticed the blank ‘in-betweenness’ start to be filled with creative imagery and games! A digital playground, if one could go so far, designed for the space in-between.
Every use became less about the files I wish to send and more about the creativity and engagement space would provide. Rebranding themselves to emphasise the ‘We’, the company has brought out more products that focus on “making creativity easier for everyone” and providing creative inspiration and connection.
During the 1940s, Van Eyck conceived of the ‘in-between’ as a space filled with ambivalence, where different concepts could meet, unite and come into balance.
In 2021, Could Wetransfer’s transformation of the digital ‘in-between’ represent the evolution of van Eyck’s theory? It could be a stretch but at the very least, it symbolises the enduring relevance of play and its ability to create connection.
Emma Jeane Wrigley
A UX designer specialising in design for play and digital experiences. I enjoy finding connections between UX design and the physical world.