The Function of Folk in UX Design

I was at the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, attending The Function of Folk, a two-day symposium on Illustration Research, when a dawning realization came to me that I might be the only designer in attendance. I felt this for several reasons, but one of them was the frequent and unique way people said, “Oh, you’re a designer…” when I introduced myself.

Entrance of the Muzeum Etnograficzne, Kraków, Poland

Although it was understandable that many UX designers wouldn’t seek insight into their trade by attending a conference on folk art, that response from my fellow attendees stirred up the old Art vs. Design adage in my head (that artists can become designers, but not the other way around). I was on guard, and I began to wonder if I should’ve found a more suitable conference to attend back home in Denmark, where designers are hand-fed grapes. But before I could think much more about it, a reference to famous Italian designer, Bruno Munari, in the opening remarks got my attention and brought my defenses back down. In his book, Design as Art, Munari says:

“Anyone who uses a properly designed object feels the presence of an artist who has worked for him bettering his living conditions and encouraging him to develop his taste and sense of beauty.” He later adds, “The designer is therefore the artist of today…”

In other words, the environment I was in wasn’t about Art vs. Design and the downgrading of artists, but about the ways in which we bring art to everyone, and keep it in the public eye, regardless of who you are.

Folk art and design have many commonalities in that regard. They have utilitarian functions, and enhance the way we live and communicate with one another. But it doesn’t end with fluffy quilts, or ceremonial masks and costumes. Folk art (and the various ways in which it is created) is embedded in our everyday lives, and also teaches other valuable lessons for UX designers of today.


For the keynote speaker of the conference, Andrzej Klimowski, Professor of Illustration at the Royal College of Art in London, storytelling was the means and the end to his many books. His pursuits of a story (and curiosity) lead him to stalk a woman on the street for a couple of blocks, which he then published as a storybook.

Excerpt from Horace Dolan, Andrzej Klimowski

Storytelling is an invaluable element in the UCD process, and at p202, our research tools (personas, journey maps, user workflows, etc.) help us discover and understand the narrative inherent to any user experience. Stories get the design team, clients, and users all on the same page, and they do so in a clear manner, because our minds are wired for storytelling. As designers, this helps us to understand the world we are crafting and inhabiting, and it helps us relate to and interact with our users. In a recent webinar, Whitney Quesenbery, co-author of Storytelling for User Experience explains, “each person who uses our software, maybe each person in the world, is the center of their own story. We need to think about how they connect to what it is that we do.”

The benefits of storytelling are well tried and true in design, and UX design is no exception. Smashing Magazine explores this notion in a pair of articles they’ve called “Better User Experience with Storytelling,” and a great number articles like it are available in print and online, which I likely won’t need to get into here. All in all, folk art aims to tell and aid in retelling stories of daily life. Listening to users and retelling their stories gives everything context. Once we start to understand that context, we can then populate it with other ideas, and live and work better.

Preserving meaning

Kraków’s Ethnographic Museum was started by an initiative to preserve the peasant culture of Poland and the surrounding regions. Back in 1883, its founder, Seweryn Udziela wrote a letter, seeking what it meant to feel Polish at a time when there wasn’t a Poland. It opened in 1911, and the collection contains items from villages, some of which have all but disappeared, lasting revolution after revolution, the Interwar years, and more revolution. The objects tell stories not only because they have hidden or lost meanings or because the owners can tell that story/meaning to us, but because we are able to interact with them and relate to them.

Traditional Dress, Muzeum Etnograficzne, Kraków, Poland

As life gets translated into illustrations, it becomes simplified. Simplifying objects into icons or symbols doesn’t necessarily make it easier to relate to, but it does make it easy to repeat as a pattern. In folk art, some of the meanings in decorative patterns can be lost in time, but are then open for interpretation. For James Walker, Senior Lecturer at the University for the Creative Arts, illustrations have a communicative role, and the process in which life is simplified into folk art is just as relevant as the outcome or meaning. For him, it is important, to preserve meaning in the vernacular line, the basic forms and conscious decisions we make as artists.

The Vernacular Line (Etchings of cooking from presentation slide), James Walker

For visual designers, this lesson translates quite easily. Although not typically involved very deeply with the discovery phase of a project, the visual design team does more than paint wireframes to make them look pretty. They must preserve the meaning of the line (sometimes as obvious as the wireframe), and get users to interact though meaningful use of patterns or other design techniques.

Made by the people, for the people

With fewer restrictions to aesthetics or art movements, folk art makes itself understood and relevant in ways that the fine arts simply cannot. It can be seen as unashamed and classless, but most importantly, it allows for more involvement from its viewers and its creators, and allows for more viewers to get involved. After all, in appropriate settings, humor works great in UX design, so surely, there is more room for kitsch and camp.

Ceremonial Costumes, Muzeum Etnograficzne, Kraków, Poland

Sometimes, folk art is terrifying and horrible. Its costumes may bring fear to not only the evil that it is meant to scare away, but also to the viewer, seeing it as alien and not from this world. This was the case in the often-referenced movie of the conference, The Wicker Man (the ’73 version — not the Nicolas Cage remake). At other times folk art encompasses the not-so-alien, but ordinary.

These are familiar things for users and designers, alike. The make users comfortable with the information presented, and the environment they are processing it in. Skeuomorphic design has a place in UX design for a reason; it makes usability one of the main goals of the design, while also making things as familiar as possible, to as many people as possible. This doesn’t always mean the direct translation of real world objects (although it can be), but also means incorporating life like textures and environments into the UI.

I really want an Easter egg

The tradition of giving Easter eggs is old, and sums up everything perfectly. Growing up in the States, Easter eggs were two brightly colored ends of a plastic shell to me, surrounding a peep or some other candy. But in Poland and other countries in the region, these were made in a variety of ways for centuries, and would often contain symbols, which at some time or another meant something. According to Ewalina Lasota, of the Ethnographic Museum, these common representations of fertility, were traditionally decorated, and then given from women to men to ward off evil or sickness, or to show affection. Like an older version of the mixtape, eventually everyone started giving them to each other.

Easter egg collection, Muzeum Etnograficzne, Kraków, Poland

The museum had a huge collection, and the effort and care put into each egg could be easily seen – from the original receiver of the gift, to the passing viewer. Attention to detail, use of color, meaning of the message; all of these were in play. A beautiful collection, and a beautiful thought, knowing that they were all made with another person in mind.