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Saint Hedwig and the New Convent; Nuns from Bamberg Settling at the New Convent — Paul Getty Museum

Design systems, medieval cathedrals, and architects.

Was the Gothic style one of the first examples of a “design language” based on modularity and repetition?

“Is it possible to draw parallels between the art of the medieval cathedrals, and the design of a modern design system?”

This is the question I started to ask myself, while visiting the Freiburg Münster (cathedral) in a lunch break during Smashing Conference, a few years ago.

Paul Lloyd just finished giving one of his epic talks, in which he connected design, history, architecture, sociology, urbanism, and much more, to show how the design of systems always needs to embrace a multi-disciplinary approach, to analyze and understand a wider context of the problem.

The day before, Nathan Curtis explained in another great talk how a design system is made of multiple inter-related parts, and how we should “look beyond the toolkit” and work on the whole: it’s not about the parts but the connections that we draw across all of them.

I had an hour or so, and the cathedral was just in front of the location where the conference was held.

I took a walk around the cathedral, with my eyes looking up at the towering spire, observing the multitude of waterspouts, gargoyles, arcs, statues of saints. I stood in awe in front of the entrance hall, trying to read the stories hidden in the intricacies of the decorations, in the portal and the edicules.

I walked in the nave of the cathedral, surrounded by hundreds of different gothic decorations: wooden and stone statues, high-reliefs and altars, carved columns, ribbed vaults, stained-glass windows.

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Some images I collected of the Freiburg Münster in Freiburg (Germany)
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Some images of the stained glasses inside the Freiburg Münster in Freiburg (Germany)

I’ve always been passionate about medieval art. So I knew that behind every single thing that I was looking at — every animal, plant, human figure, object — there was more than meets the eye. Every single one of them was a symbol. An “icon”. They were there to tell a story, and for me it was like trying to read a book written in another language.

Those patterns and motifs were not just decorative: there was a clear intent (and meaning) attached to them: liturgic, theologic, pedagogic, even social.

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The pulpit of Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna) is decorated with snakes, lizards, and frogs, crawling up along the handrail, guarded by a little dog at the top.

Visit St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, the “Duomo” Cathedral in Milan, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Reims, the “Minster” Cathedral in York, and you will find the same symbolism, the same iconography, the same “language”.

This common aesthetic spread across Europe in the course of centuries, in what is today known as International Gothic, thanks to a shared “vocabulary” made of decorative symbols, “modules” and repetitions, but also variants, deviations, and local interpretations.

Detail of a medieval window at Troyes Cathedral, France (14th century) — Wikimedia Commons

While I was standing there, looking at these masterpieces, trying to interpret and decode the symbols, nothing could take out of my mind the idea that this was a “design language”.

There were no doubts for me that there was some kind of relationship between what I was seeing, and the talks by Paul and Nathan. But could one go so far as to say that there were parallels to draw (and maybe lessons to learn) between the art of the medieval cathedrals, and the design of a modern design system?

This question stuck in my mind for a long time.

Sometime later, I bought this book: The Cathedral Builders of the Middle Ages, a good introduction to the specific topic of stonemasonry. It remained on a shelf for a long time, until a couple of months ago, when I started to read it, probably with the hope to get some kind of answer.

Now, having read it, I can say that there are even more similarities and links between these two worlds than what I thought.

One, in particular, has struck me for its modernity. It’s the description of a fundamental figure in the building of cathedrals: the architect.

“The architect’s responsibilities, to provide the design and manage the project, required special skills. In the matter of the design, he had to persuade the patron and avoid any temperamental clashes that might lead to changes of mind and introduce inconsistencies.

“On site, it was vital for the architect to make himself understood by the different people who had to work together, since if his wishes were interpreted incorrectly the scheme could go wrong.”

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Examples of construction of buildings in medieval miniature — Wikimedia Commons

“When building in stone, the architect had to produce two kinds of document: one for the patron, to enable him to visualize the final result, and the other for the different craftsmen. Later, we also find another kind of drawing — sketches that show the architect working towards the final design through various changes of mind; and it is probable that suck sketches also existed in the Middle Ages, even though we have no written evidence and not one has been preserved.”

“The drawings submitted to the patron were not detailed enough for the execution of the building. The architect had to produce other detailed drawings to make his idea clear to the workshop. These generally disappeared during the course of the works, but a few are still in existence, such as a drawing at Strasbourg showing the re-vaulting of Ste-Catherine’s chapel […]. It bears numbers and letters indicating precisely how to cut stones for the vaulting ribs.”

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Dessin de la partie centrale de la façade de la cathédrale de Strasbourg (vers 1360–1370) — Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame

Those who work with design systems will have immediately caught the analogies here, I think.

If we consider “architects” those that build a design system, they as well provide designs and manage “the project”; they advocate it with the business/product-owner (“patron”); they have to work extremely hard to avoid inconsistencies and modifications (“changes of mind”).

Similarly, it is vital also for them to make themselves understood by the different people who work together, the “craftsmen” (designer, developers, etc.). To do that, they prepare different kind of presentations: high-level visual presentations — the design — for the “customer”, and low-level detailed drawings/specification for the execution of the project, with numbers and letters indicating precisely how to execute the work — the redlines of the design.

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An example of “design annotation” used in the designer-developer handover, specifically focused on a component of a design system.

There’s another interesting thing, mentioned in the book, that reminded me of a design system: the construction site was full of people with different skills, functions and knowledge, working in unison at the same project, under the same grand vision.

The specialist workforce was made by high-skilled craftsmen like stone-cutters, sculptors, carpenters, masons, mortar-makers, plasterers and quarrymen, who were paid accordingly to their skills.
The low-skilled labourers instead were paid much less, often by the day, and they were employed to do basic jobs such as transporting building materials, digging foundations, or removing earth.

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File-Jean Fouquet — The Building of a Cathedral — Wikimedia Commons

All of them worked under the direction and supervision of the architect, the “magister operis”, that coordinated them during the different phases of the construction (and it could take decades, even centuries in some cases!).

Make no mistake: he was himself a “maker”, a craftsman working at the building site, not just an “overseer” directing other people. He was also the ultimate responsible for the project; for that, he signed a formal — and extremely detailed — contract with the patron.

The relation between these two central figures — the patron and the architect — is worth to be examined more, but not now. If you are interested, there are references linked at the bottom of the article.

Now, if you’ve read between the lines, you have started to see why a parallel between the medieval cathedrals and design systems is not so absurd. But there are even more important similarities that I want to point out.

First of all, cathedrals were designed and built with a systematic approach. From the architectural perspective, a base unit, called “modulus”, was used to define the geometrical relations and proportions between the different parts of the church. Each element of the structure — from the dimensions of the nave to the curvature of the arches, from the size of the windows to the radius of the chapels — was designed and built in geometric relation to this unit. In some churches the modulus and base curves were inscribed on the floor of the nave, so that builders could use them as reference during the construction.

To reduce cost of transportations, stones started to be prepared and carved (“dressed”) directly in the quarries, using templates prepared by the masons.

Nonetheless, the design of the cathedrals was not completely done upfront. Of course, there was a general plan, as described above, prepared by the architect following the rigorous geometric proportions and drawn on paper or parchment, but this went through continuous adjustments and decisions, often taken as a result of the conversations happening between the patron, the architect, and the expert craftsmen working on-site.

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A mid-thirteenth century drawing showing a king (“patron”) and his master mason (“architect”) engaged in an animated conversation during a visit to the building site. Notice the finger, indicating that the king is giving instructions. (Matthew Paris — London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D. 1, fol. 23 v)

Given the complexity of these projects, and the unknowns ahead of such monumental enterprises, this ongoing process of “fitting and adapting” was an ingenious approach to “problem solving” (that lead to incredible technological and architectural progress).

Repetition and modularity were not only a fundamental part of the way cathedrals were constructed, but also at the core of the Gothic “design language”, as I have explained above. Of course, there was also space for variation and invention, specificity and uniqueness. Try to take a tour of the roof of the Duomo in Milan, and observe the sculptures there: each one is different, and perfectly carved (even though no one could see them from the ground). Try to take a walk around a medieval cathedral decorated with waterspouts and gargoyles and see the heterogeneity in their representations.

These are two excerpts from the essay “Mega-Structures of the Middle Ages” by Maarten Prak: “[…] a modular design and execution was underpinning much of the construction work on large projects such as European cathedrals.” and also: “[…] A similar debate in January 1400 between builders from Lombardy and Jean Mignot, a French architect brought in by the Duke, failed to reach a compromise. Their exchanges, faithfully recorded by the cathedral administrators, point to the clash of two different sets of design principles: both modular, but with different proportions.”

When you know how a Gothic cathedral was designed and built, when you look at it with the eyes of someone working on a design system, you can’t help but observe that a holistic view underpins these majestic works of art.

This is the first time, in the history of Western art, that we see such a systemic approach: walls and windows, vaults and columns, stained glass and statues, both inside and outside, they all make part of the same aesthetic vision (accumulated in the arc of tens and tens of years, maybe, but still under the same unitary intent): they were all designed and built to work as a whole.

Which is what Paul Lloyd, Nathan Curtis were saying in their talks, if you think about it (and many others after them, talking about design systems).

Which leads me to the initial question: “Is it possible to draw parallels between the art of the medieval cathedrals, and the design of a modern design system?”

I think the answer is yes, and I hope I was able to express the reasons I find for this, and the many analogies I see between two such distant things.

I don’t know if there are important conclusions to draw, or lessons to learn from this speculative comparison, apart from the intellectual divertissement.

We’re not building cathedrals, and certainly our design systems will not last millennia. But I think we can still share a similar sense of beauty and mastery in what we do. In a small way, we can still be excited to build complex (design) systems, and proud in a way to be some sort of “architects”.

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Botanical details in different paintings, on display a the Augustinermuseum in Freiburg. Each one of these plant and flower is not there just for decoration: it has a very specific — and codified — meaning.

Further readings:

Below you can find a small selection of interesting articles and other links, in case you want to learn (a little bit) more on the subject of gothic and medieval art, of its symbolism, of the stonemasons that built the cathedrals, the relation between the patron and the builders, etc.

Articles online


* some of these books are out of stock and can be only found used.

Written by

Passionate web designer & developer. In love with Atomic Design, Design Systems & CSS architecture. Attendee/speaker/organiser of tech conferences and meetups.

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